The second season of Metropolitan Opera high-def broadcasts to movie theaters began on Saturday with Gounod’s sumptuous Roméo et Juliette, Shakespeare’s famed story of the world’s stupidest lovers. I mean, think about it for a minute. Juliet we can at least understand – after all, she’s a giddy fifteen-year-old drama queen, caught in the throws of passion for the first time in her life, and as heady teenagers will, looks at everything as life and death. For her the choice is obvious – once things start to head south, the only alternative is to take her own life, in the most dramatic fashion possible.
But Romeo, we expected far more from you. He’s often thought to be older than Juliet, perhaps as old as 18. He’s old enough to kill a man, at any rate, and it’s obvious from his conduct that he knows how to carry himself in public. Therefore, we’d hoped for a little better than an impetuous suicide. His simultaneous reactions of surprise, joy and despair when he discovers that Juliet is still alive truly bring home the value of thinking important decisions through carefully before jumping into them. Alas, wisdom is often wasted on the young, and the dead.
Not surprisingly, the audience in the movie theater Saturday was younger than had been the norm last season, especially when it came to teen-aged girls, who have become the natural audience for the Bard’s tear-jerker. Fortunately, for those of us who are neither teen-agers nor girls, we had Anna Netrebko in the title role. For those of you who might not be familiar with Netrebko, she’s what opera aficionados would call a diva. To everyone else she is, simply put, a babe. She leaps off the screen in these HD broadcasts, as if only she was in HD and everyone else was analog. Both on-stage and off, it is clear that she loves the camera, and the camera loves her back with a passion. There may well be some controversy as to whether or not Netrebko has the chops to be considered one of the all-time greats, but there can be no doubt that visually she more than fits the bill. (And, by the way, she does sing awfully well.) Her Juliet was by turns bubbly and despairing, full of the confidence of youth, struck with the headiness of first love, at once both self-centered and totally giving. If Britney Spears can sing of being “not a girl, not yet a woman,” it was clear that Netrebko’s Juliet was all girl and all woman.
Needless to say, it takes a special Romeo to be able to stand next to this kind of wattage without being either totally eclipsed or burned to a crisp. Roberto Alagna, Saturday’s Romeo, was up to the task. He joked during the intermission interview that his graying hair made it more challenging to get into roles such as this, and perhaps it was this visual maturity that gave his Romeo a gravitas that isn’t always present in these productions. His Romeo was no pretty-boy; indeed, in the thrilling fight scene that brings Act One to a conclusion he carries himself as a man accustomed to the ways of fighting as well as those of the world. Unlike Juliet, this is not the first time he has found himself ensnared in the throws of passion, although this may well be his first experience of true love. In his initial encounter with Juliet, he courts her through the mask of a masked ball, in a sort of wooing by proxy, showing himself to be confident, teasing, ardent, a man of far more experience than his counterpart. Yet he, too, succumbs to the pain of Cupid’s arrow, only to be replaced in the end by pain of a much different kind.
The supporting cast, including the chorus, showed themselves to be reliable as usual. All of this, however, would have been of less import without Gounod's romantic melodies, seldom put to better use than in this piece. And surely there was no better ensemble to pull it off than the Met Opera Orchestra, conducted this day by Placido Domingo. One suspects that it was Domingo's presence in the pit, as much as Netrebko's on the stage, that gave this production its bling. The opera world is by no means unanimous in its view of Domingo as conductor, but on this day he kept the orchestra in line, kept time with the singers (especially after the intermission), and delivered a sound worthy of both the orchestra and the composer. As a personal aside, I thought the camera lingered over shots of Domingo far more often that it did with other conductors in previous broadcasts (with the exception of James Levine, who we all know is King of New York) . But it is Domingo's dedication to music and opera, as he makes the transition from performer to conductor, that helps wash away the bad taste left from the Three Tenors cheese, and serves to put further distance between Domingo and Pavarotti. (Can one seriously envision the lumbering Pavarotti, barely able to navigate the stage at the end, going down in the pit where he'd be invisible to the audience for most of the performance? Not likely.)
The Met has expanded its schedule from six to eight in this, its second year of HD theater moviecasts. By all accounts it's been a roaring success, with crowds growing and the number of theaters increasing. The theater we go to started out last year with one screen; it soon expanded to two, with both filled nearly to capacity. And, as we saw this year with the decision of St. Olaf College to simulcast its famed Christmas concert in theaters nationwide, it is a trend that appears to have legs. With this, the Met has reinforced its reputation as a national opera company, and it's going to give regional companies such as our own Minnesota Opera something to think about. The MO had a table set up in the lobby with information on the current season and an opportunity for people to register for free tickets to its own production of Romeo and Juliet (as if we couldn't figure out the French translation), running next month. As season ticket holders we already have ours, but in the lobby between acts one could hear more than one conversation, the jist of which asked why anyone would want to by tickets for our own Romeo after having experience the Met's production.
Why indeed? With the superior technology available in movie theaters, and the star power on both sides of the footlights, it's no longer good enough to simply cite the live theater experience as justification to spend one's disposable income. Operas such as the MO are going to have to deliver an experience that confirms the ticket buyer's decision. I haven't always been sure that the MO could deliver on such an experience - next month's production of Romeo will go a ways in telling whether or not such apprehension is justified. Time, as always, will tell.