Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Video killed the opera star

December 09, 2007

With American opera companies all jumping onto the Peter Gelb-led Oper für Alle bandwagon these days, the question arises – can one have too much of a good thing? Slowly but surely a wave is sweeping the nation if not the world. Suddenly every company worth its weight now has radio broadcasts, movie theater simulcasts, and DVDs flooding wherever DVDs flood these days when there are a lot of them. Certainly there are some positives in that more performances are more readily available to those who are or may become interested in this most curious of all art forms. But I suspect there is a dark underbelly here in that all this access, while initially fun in a gee whiz sort of way, can be perilously empty without appropriate content. The quality of a disturbingly large number of performances and productions that are now easy for everyone to see may in fact not be worth seeing at all.

Take some recent examples. LA Opera has jumped head first into DVD production with two offerings from its 06/07 including a notable Traviata that was part of a package deal to lure Reneé Fleming out this way for three performances as Violetta. The disc arrived last month and included Rolando Villazon’s Alfredo and Renato Bruson as Germont. I was at one of these performances and remember rather liking it at the time. Fleming can actually make hay from this role (even if it takes her until Act III to do so) and she spent this Fall reminding everyone in New York of this. But sadly, video is not always directly related to real life and after my eyes stopped burning from viewing this heirloom of the LA performance, my reaction was quite different. Why would such a handsome young man spend so much time and energy pursuing this matronly older woman? Why is his grandfather so upset about it? And most of all why would anybody film such an insipid and dull looking production anyway? Even by opera DVD standards this disc is wanting. Absent are the loving architectural shots of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that seem de rigueur for any European house. While we do get to see the golden starburst curtain and what looks like white bed sheets lining the orchestra pit walls to increase the available light, it just isn’t the same. Fleming got her close up. I hope she was ready for it.

Alagna amongst the ruins
Photo: Marco Brescia / Teatro alla Scala 2006
But it isn’t just LA that’s subject to the follies of video. Take La Scala who recently barreled into theaters around the globe screenings of its productions. December marked the first of these exhibitions of pre-recorded material with the notorious Aida that opened last season with the sole complete platform-sandal-clad performance of Roberto Alagna as Radames opposite Violetta Urmana's rendition of the title role. I caught an evening screening of this almost unwatchable mess at the Mann’s Chinese 6 Theaters at Hollywood and Highland. If you’re looking for a primer on all that is wrong in the world of opera today, you’d be hard pressed to find a more concise argument than this video. The editors have apparently cut their teeth on training videos for multinational corporations in the 90s given the soft-core porn close ups of bits of fabric and gilded set details used to transition between scenes. The Zeffirelli staging is atrocious with not a single thought in evidence with regards to anyone on stage doing anything other than standing motionless with an intense orange Magic Tan and sci-fi fright wig. The singing and musical performances, while not embarrassing, weren't really great either. If LA’s opening DVD choice was a poor one, La Scala’s first theater screening was a disaster. As an LA side note, the Mann’s Chinese 6 screening was marred by continuous thumping bass from whatever was playing next door, which the profoundly ambivalent staff seemed powerless to address. If you’re taking a risk on one of these future screenings I would suggest traipsing over to Santa Monica, the other LA option for these shows.

So what have we learned? The valuable lesson known to actors throughout the last century - despite its many benefits, something can easily be lost in video. And just because you can make something easily available for everyone to see, doesn't mean that it's worth seeing.

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