These Met HD performances are, as I say all the time, like dying and going to Heaven. Yet there is a trend that is increasingly bothering me, and, I am sure, other opera devotees as well. In its zeal to capitalize on the phenomenally successful telecasts of live performances of its operas, the Met management is turning out productions that are increasingly looking like they were made for the movies — and for future viewing on people’s small-screen television sets.
Yesterday’s New York Times (Feb. 26) had a review (by Zachary Woolfe) of the Met’s current Lucia di Lammermoor that treated this issue: “… the Met’s recent productions can seem directed at the camera rather than the audience in the theater.” And yesterday’s performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride had an especially egregious example. In the final act, when Iphigénie is musing, the camera was so “in her face” that her face filled almost the entire screen. Not that Susan Graham is not highly attractive, but it was a travesty. And it jarred me out of the mood of the opera by evoking the image of those kissy, close-up scenes that closed movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
And, yes, even chorus singers are forced to grimace, fidget, show emotion in their eyes in every second onstage. A corollary problem relating to the chorus is that one cannot do one’s own browsing. I have a friend who sings in it, and I rather enjoy trying to find her. But just when the roving camera gets close to a suspect, it maddeningly veers away. As a member of a live audience in the concert hall, I can at least resort to opera glasses.
Not that the video direction should keep to the premise of solely duplicating the opera-goer’s experience; the HD version is actually superior, visually. But we HD viewers do not need a lot of close ups that decide what is important for us to see. The images are sharp enough that for the most part, the proscenium arch should be about as close as we have to get, with occasional closer views at key moments for individual characters.
A third problem has more to do with what opera is being produced. When there is no overture before the opening curtain, we never get to see those superb Met players. Wouldn’t it be possible, from time to time and for a moment, to zero in on, say, an oboe or flute solo? This is not a contradiction of the above suggestion; at the times when staging is preoccupied with being “busy” might be just such an occasion. In halls where players are somewhat visible, it is fun to zero in on soloists.
One experiment on the possibilities of telecasting versus live performance was quickly dropped — the disastrous use of split-screen effects in the early HD production of Tristan in 2008, in which there were upwards of 12 screens or so, if memory serves. I hear tell that audience response was heavily negative. I do hope audiences also ask the Met to respect the essential spirit of opera as a staged production.
Woolfe’s review of Lucia hinted that the paying live theater audience may be taking a back seat to the HD ones. It is not clear how this plays out; the live audience would be none the wiser, it seems, to the flick of an eye or grimace. Most in the audience can hardly make out the details of a face, never mind expressions. But the Met is well advised not to have Woolfe’s “rather than” be construed as such.
The backstage mechanics are fun to watch. And one HD moment I hope is never dropped: “Maestro to the pit. Maestro to the pit, please!”
The message to the Met is strictly on the camera work during the performance. Not that there should be no zoom-ins or close ups; those are among the delights of this HD technology. But please, Met, do not overdo it.