Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

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April 20, 2010


Oh this modern age we live in. Just when you begin to come to grips with the digital trace you leave around here and there around the internets and such, another outcropping of your past peaks its head from around the corner. Even in the world of opera, the increasing presence of video equipment has left us with a (nearly) permanent record of moments we may or may not want to remember forever. Stranger yet, this preservation has created a peculiar situation in which the average opera goer may find themselves the unwitting participant in a filmed extravaganza as an audience member. Granted actually being seen in the audience of a filmed opera performance is highly unlikely. But still, the actual record of something that you were there for is unusual for the commoner like myself unaccustomed to performing. So just for kicks, I’ve compiled a list of a few of the opera performances that I was physically in the audience for during at least one of the live taping sessions. And while this list is not intended to be exhaustive, nor would I recommend all of these DVDs or specific performances in every case, it probably does say something about me as an opera-goer. So have at it.

Above I’ve featured the excellent new Virgin Classics DVD of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia staring Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez at he Royal Opera House in London from July 2009. This may not be the best item to start my list with in that technically it is cheating since I actually attended the performance immediately prior to this one. However, I include it here for two reasons. The performance I attended was the one in which DiDonato actually broke her leg in an accident during the show, but continued to performance with a crutch, unaware of the extent of her injury in incredible pain. She continued the run without missing a show in a cast and in a wheelchair making headlines around the world. And while I did not care for the production itself, this was musically the best Barbiere I’ll probably ever see and DiDonato and Florez are forces to be reckoned with. It’s a spectacular performance, and the video editing helps spice up the hum drum production.

And speaking of great vocal performances, how about Renée Fleming’s Violetta, and Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo (pre- vocal crisis) in Verdi's La Traviata. This performance taped live at the opening of L.A. Opera’s 2006/2007 features both singers in particularly good moments in their careers under the baton of the house’s then new music director James Conlon. Again no one benefits from the rather plain-jane staging from Martha Domingo, but this disc will always bring back fond memories for me.

Sometimes the staging can be good though. On my trip to Amsterdam in 2008, I was fortunate enough to be in the front row for Pierre Audi’s new production of Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise with Rodney Gilfry in the title role at De Nederlandse Opera. Ingo Metzmacher led the orchestra which was onstage throughout in a beautiful mind-altering performance. I didn’t have the best view of the thrust stage for the show, but this great DVD makes my memories of the performance even more exciting. It's still a must-have DVD.

Of course The Metropolitan Opera in New York has more or less cornered the market in opera DVDs especially now that their live HD broadcasts of select Saturday matinee broadcasts have become so popular. I have been present in the live audience for a handful of these productions and the ones that make it to DVD are instant keepsakes regardless of the quality of the performances. Perhaps my favorite of these is Humperdink’s Hansel und Gretel from December 2007 in the Richard Jones’ production staring Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. It’s a beautifully sung staging of one of the most beautiful operas. (I'll add that I'm also in the audience for the Met's release of the overly-maligned Mary Zimmerman-directed La Sonnambula from 2009 with Nathalie Dessay.)

One of my favorite European opera houses is the Bayerische Staatsoper and I’ve had the good fortune to catch a number of operas that were being taped for posterity during my visits there including a 2007 Kovanshchina and Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland. Just last summer, I saw the performance featured above of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia starring the legendary Edita Gruberova. And while these Cristoph Loy productions sometimes have the feel of a victory lap for Gruberova, she’s still pretty amazing and nobody pulls a wig of their head like she does.

And if you think the cameras only follow me around in the opera house, you’d be wrong. I’m also way up on the side in the DG DVD of Gustavo Dudamel’s inagural concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic that was shown on PBS in the Fall of 2009 and has subsequently been released on DVD as are most things Dudamel. I didn’t think much of Mahler’s 1st Symphony in this performance and the world premiere of John Adams’ City Noir seemed a little too familiar, but the recording is still there. And who knows, someday maybe I’ll watch it again and change my mind. In any event, this recording, and the others are there as a sort of track record of my own concert-going life which is just part of the world we now live in for better or worse.


I was in the audience at the Met for the taping of The Trojans with Domingo, Jessye Norman, and Tatiana Troyanos (Oct 8, 1983). The whole thing was a complete thrill, one of the most memorable performances of my life, and I'm so happy that the video has remained available ever since, changing video formats notwithstanding. Currently there is a re-mastered DVD. Since I only have it on Laserdisc, maybe it's time to get another copy.
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