Of late there has been quite a bit of buzz, including my colleague John Montanari’s blog posting, about the Metropolitan Opera, its HD broadcasts to movie theatres and its new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In the interests of full disclosure, John also admitted that he hadn’t seen either the HD broadcasts or the new production of the Ring. Since I have, I thought I’d add my impressions.
Another full disclosure admission: I’m no expert on Wagner or the Ring. The only previous production I have seen is the Met’s Otto Schenk cycle when it was televised 20 years ago. And while I’ve heard all the individual operas on the radio multiple times, I’ve never followed with the score, and have mostly listened intermittently while doing other things on a Saturday afternoon. So I approached the HD broadcasts without preconceptions of how the works should be performed, but well aware of what this production would be like from the great amounts of publicity that had been generated around it.
My wife and I have been big fans of the Met’s HD broadcasts almost from the beginning. We missed the first few, but once we had discovered them we immediately bought tickets for the rest of that season, and have bought the entire season’s worth every year since. Simply having access to all of those performances is a tremendous benefit. So are all the glimpses of backstage as the stars are interviewed and we get to watch set changes and meet some of the people who make the magic happen: the animal wranglers, prop builders, costumers, the technical director and stage hands. We often get the conductor’s perspective on the music and the singers.
And it has whetted our appetite for attending operas onstage. We have been to the Met a dozen or more times over the last dozen or so years. So far this year we’ve been twice. During Spring Break we saw Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau and Mariusz Kwiecien in one of the final performances of L’elisir d’amore. We’re anxious to compare it to the new production which opens the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012-2013 Live in HD series. And we were anxious to make the opposite comparison: having seen all of the Ring cycle in HD we wanted to see it in the house. The complete cycle was logistically impossible and prohibitively expensive, but we did manage to find tickets for Die Walküre in a matinee performance.
One difference between HD and the Met stage is immediately apparent. In the house there is only one perspective from which to watch. There are no closeups and no quick cutting from camera to camera. And I didn’t miss them at all. It was my choice as to where to put my attention, and I always had the complete stage picture. There are times in the movie theatre when I long to have the camera pull back and let me see what other characters are doing, and how they respond to each other. This is particularly true in ensembles, when several characters express themselves at once, or in choral scenes, though this is less apparent in the Ring than in operas with more such ensemble action.
With this production of the Ring, the various shapes that the “machine” making up the stage setting assumes is important, along with the projections which indicate the scene or match the emotions portrayed in the music. You can read about projected video and many other aspects of the Met’s Ring in this series of articles from the New York Times. These projections seem to work better in the house than in HD, where they could often be seen on the singers, a minor distraction which thankfully I wasn’t usually aware of in my third row seat.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the “machine” and the publicity generated around it before the opening of the productions, and it has come in for a fair amount of criticism since. There have been glitches which have detracted from the effect, but as the stage crew has become more skilled at handling the machine, there have been no noticeable problems in the HD broadcasts, nor was there in our experience in the house. There was very little creaking from it, either, apart from the “chariot” upon which Stephanie Blythe is seated as Fricka as it glides downstage. More distractingly audible in quiet passages in the music was a whispering sound as of heating or air conditioning, which is likely to have been from the fans cooling the many projectors. The machine made a very effective backdrop, indicating Hunding’s home and Valhalla, and most spectacularly in the Ride of the Valkyries, which had double the thrill that it had had in HD (even when we could see the stage hands with their ropes guiding the planks representing movements of the horses). The final effect of fire surrounding the sleeping Brünhilde also came across far better than it had in HD.
Now, at last I’ve come to the music. And here there indeed is a difference between HD and the house, where no amplification comes between musicians and audience. In the movie theatre we have a soundtrack which balances everyone evenly (and sometimes, as in most movies, seems to be too loud). In the house the balance is what singers and orchestra make of it, which in our case was exquisite. Many years ago on a Saturday morning backstage tour of the Met, which ended at the stage manager’s console, I sneaked away from the group and stood for a moment alone at center stage. The curtain was up, and I could tell from the ambient sound from the room that if I were to open my mouth, I could fill the hall with my voice. That acoustic means that voices carry easily from the stage, and the voices we heard carried well while carrying the drama.
We were at the performance in which Frank van Aken replaced Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund. This was what general manager Peter Gelb called the “heartwarming story” to go along with our disappointment at not hearing Kaufmann, who was ill. Van Aken is the husband of Eva-Marie Westbroek, the soprano who made an excellent Sieglinde. And he had come to the United States for the very first time to join us in the audience to hear his wife performing when Kaufmann became ill and withdrew. He had performed the role before, including with Westbroek wife two years ago in Frankfurt, and made his Met debut opposite her in this performance. He made a heroic effort, which did not quite take away the disappointment of missing the tenor we had heard in the HD broadcast. There was one other cast difference between the HD broadcast and this performance, in that Katarina Dalayman was the scheduled Brünhilde, rather than Deborah Voigt, whom we had earlier seen. Any anxieties about her performance were erased at the first Hojotoho. Her anguished confrontation with Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was compelling. We now look forward to her performance with Jonas Kaufmann in Parsifal as one of the highlights of the 2012-2013 Live in HD season. The rest of the cast was outstanding: Hans-Peter König as a booming voiced Hunding, Stephanie Blythe as the magnificently outraged Fricka and Bryn Terfel as the conflicted Wotan.
At our local HD broadcasts we encounter many of the same people each time. They are devotees, and many are faithful listeners. Some have newly discovered the joys of opera through these broadcasts and are eagerly educating themselves on the repertoire, while others are lifelong enthusiasts with whom we swap stories of great productions at the Met and elsewhere. Everyone we met at the performance and also in line to meet Natalie Dessay at the Met’s Opera Shop seemed to take their enthusiasm a step further. The man in the row in front of us took a tiny apartment across the street and is in the house at least a couple of times a week. He gave us a comparison of Brünhildes and says the one we must hear is Nina Stemme. Behind us was a doctor from Australia who spends a month every year in New York and writes a blog about his opera experiences. Behind him somewhere were another 180 Australians who were making the pilgrimage from “Oz” (their word) just for the Ring Cycle.