Yesterday I went to a Met “live in HD” broadcast for the first time since The Nose two years ago. It was an interesting and ultimately rather depressing experience. This review really falls into two parts; a review of the production and performance, including how it was filmed for broadcast, and a piece on how the Met is “presenting” the work and how that seems to fit in with its overall HD strategy. The latter may turn into a bit of a rant.
William Kentridge’s production was extremely interesting. Unsurprisingly he made heavy use of massive video projections, here based largely on india ink brush sketches. I liked it. More unusually he introduced two other elements. There was a pair of additional silent characters; a pianist and a waiter, who interacted with the singers at times and at others seemed to be running a commentary on the action. There was also heavy use of fake paper heads, giant hands plus rough sketches of breasts and even pubic hair that were worn by or velcroed onto characters, mostly Lulu, as matters proceeded. Coupled with the idea that the portrait of Lulu created in Act 1 is actually a multiple series of sketches plus the projections often being animated sketches of Lulu it served to create a Konzept of Lulu herself as something created. That’s one of many valid takes I guess.
That aspect of the production aside it was fairly straightforward. Costumes were perhaps a bit clownish. I think my tailor would have apoplexy if I attempted to order something like Dr. Schön’s bilious green double breasted. There was, I thought, a bit of a tendency to play for laughs whenever there was a chance which I found odd but I guess it is in the text. There were some strong performances. Marlis Petersen was terrific in the title role. She’s a fine singer and manages the various moods of Lulu from sex kitten to despairing victim with apparent ease. Johan Reuter was a fine foil as Dr. Schön. There was some really powerful singing here as well as commanding acting. Throw in some fine lyrical singing from Daniel Brenna as Alwa and a really insightful Schigolch from veteran Franz Grundheber and you have the makings of a near perfect cast. The only one who didn’t quite work for me was Susan Graham as Gräfin Geschwitz. She sang well enough but just didn’t seem of a piece with the work or the production. It seemed kind of like asking Renée Fleming to sing the title role.
How well was it served by the cameras? Video heavy shows are notoriously hard to film and when there is continuous fifty foot high video that challenge becomes huge. I thought Matthew Diamond did pretty well. Cetainly his treatment was truer to the stage picture than most MetHD broadcasts. One felt that he was trying to work with rather than against the production. Of course there were times when he brought the camera in closer but it didn’t feel excessive. I’ve read the reviews of people who have seen the show in the house and I gather it is quite overwhelming. In the cinema we got only a flavour of that but I think it was no mean feat to manage even that.
So, as MetHD broadcasts go, the overall treatment of the work; by director, performers and film crew was distinctly above average. I’d go so far as to say this is, overall, one of the best things that has been broadcast.
On the purely technical side I think things have improved since the early years. The sound system no longer sounds like it has been set up for Apocalypse 4: The End of the Universe and it’s possible to listen without one’s ears bleeding. I’m not convinced though that “live” is such a benefit. Apart from a several minute satellite fault in the first act yesterday, it also means one is stuck with the Met’s interminable intervals which resulted in yesterday’s show running 4 hours 15 minutes. That’s a long time to be stuck in a cinema.
Now to the rant. I really do think the whole MetHD thing has now been dumbed down to the point where I can just not take anymore. The programming, of course, has become insufferably dull with multiple showings of Puccini productions that have already been filmed and omission of most of the most interesting shows. It’s pretty clear why. The Met now knows its audience. It’s sort of the Tea Party of opera and the Met has decided to be its Fox News. It’s old (the chatter around me about who in the audience was older than Lulu was hilarious and they still equated being as old as themselves with “dangerously modern”), largely ignorant about opera generally and certainly entirely unaware of what is going on in their own city. An awful lot of people also seem to have this fixed idea that the Met represents, in every respect, the pinnacle of operatic achievement. The Met presenters are scripted to feed these prejudices.
It came out strongest in Deb Voigt’s interview of Susan Graham. Even the irrepressible Ms. Voigt couldn’t quite stop someone as old and wise as Franz Grundheber from talking sense but the Graham interview was awful. It was all about how intimidating and difficult taking on a role like Geschwitz is (with Deb throwing in casually that Marie in Wozzeck was the hardest thing she’s ever done). I suppose it’s just possible for merica’s darlings to have thirty year careers at the top of the business without once encountering harder music to learn than Berg but I find it implausible. I don’t know if Carla Huhtahnen or Krisztina Szabó heard the interview but if they did they must have split their sides. There was also a similar exchange about how hard it must be to switch from singing Orlofsky to singing Geschwitz. Really? That’s what professionals do and, anyway, I don’t think the musical universes are so obviously galaxies apart as whoever wrote the script wanted the audience to believe. It was unbelievably patronising.
It doesn’t have to be like that. The Royal Opera House cinema shows are much more respectable of the audience. But the Met doesn’t want you to know that. For all the “an opera house near you” genuflection the Met wants a monopoly of both the audience and how it thinks. Here in central Canada their predatory commercial tactics further that. It’s probably a short term money maker but I’m sure it’s not in the long term best interests of the art form.