Thursday, May 7, 2009

Opera Thursday

By Mitchell

Admittedly, televised opera is a fairly obscure subset of two relatively exclusive area of interest – television and opera. Furthermore, any discussion of televised opera is going to center for the most part on the early years of television – the 50s and 60s, when NBC Opera Theater brought a regular season of opera to TV screens across the country, and other networks chimed in with the occasional production. So if these are topics that don't interest you, feel free to come back tomorrow and see if we've done any better.

For those of you still with us, it is undeniable that since the early 70s, if you wanted to see opera on TV, you looked to PBS; and even there, until the recent advent of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmissions, televised operas have faded away to virtual invisibility. True, European television networks such as the BBC do continue to offer operas – but then, they also give us programs (programmes?) like Benny Hill. Go figure.

There are two types of broadcast opera – a telecast of a live production from a theater (as with the Met broadcasts), or a production that originates in a television studio (Amahl and the Night Visitors, for example. As a television aficionado, I have a natural bias toward the second category. Although there’s nothing like the excitement generated by a live audience, studio opera has its plusses as well, such as the ability to construct camera angles that give viewers a perspective unavailable to traditional theater audiences. The results can be fascinating, as in the BBC’s 1969 broadcast of Britten’s Peter Grimes, in which abstract paintings are panned by the camera during the opera’s several orchestral interludes.

Regardless of the type of production, the broadcast of opera on TV is, or at least can be, a real art form. (There was none better at it than the late Kirk Browning, who was at the helm during the historic Amahl broadcast.) To the best of my knowledge, there has only been one comprehensive study of televised opera – Jennifer Barnes’ excellent Television Opera. But whereas Barnes’ book focused specifically on operas written for television, I’m thinking today about standard repertory operas being broadcast on TV.

Witness the following live theater broadcast of Puccini’s Tosca, starring Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. This is from the late 50s, at the Paris Opera. We’re looking at the conclusion of Act 2, the famous confrontation between Tosca and Scarpia, in which Tosca agrees to “submit” to Scarpia in return for the release of her lover Cavaradossi and safe conduct papers for the two of them to escape. It’s along about this point that Tosca begins to have second thoughts – well, you can see the rest. The clip runs for just under eight minutes.

Now, several things stand out in this excerpt. First is the unmistakable command with which Callas and Gobbi dominate the stage. We sometimes forget that opera is theater every bit as much, if not more than, concert. Callas had her vocal difficulties from time to time, and even at this point in her career one could say that she was not in the best of voice. But the drama, the intensity and fire generated by these two in this scene more than make up for it.

But I want you to look at the action on the stage. Rather than concentrating on close-ups, the director has chosen to give us, for the most part, a long shot showing the entire stage. By doing so, we can see the turmoil that wracks Tosca after killing Scarpia (sorry if I’ve given it away for you there) – the indecision, the panic, even the piety that has caused more than one commentator to suggest some intriguing theories about Tosca’s relationship with Cavaradossi (again, a topic for another day). Callas’ use of the entire stage would be rendered ineffective had the director chosen to focus on a tight shot of Callas.

But for me the finest moment comes at the very end of the act. As Tosca lays the Crucifix on the dead Scarpia’s chest, we cut to a stage-level angle, showing Scarpia’s body flanked by candlesticks on either side. We then return to the long shot, with Tosca looking desperately for the safe conduct papers. Finding them, she turns to go – and we see the shadow of the stage curtain beginning to come down. The music rises, drops, rises again; we cut back to the stage-level view of Scarpia, now alone in the room, candles burning. The director settles on this static shot and holds there, until the fringe of the curtain appears and touches the stage – at the same moment that the last note of Act 2 is played.

Clearly, the timing was choreographed, and the intersection of curtain and music would likely have happened whether or not the opera was being broadcast. But the point is that the television director knew the staging, and framed that last shot to take advantage of Scarpia literally disappearing from the screen, the curtain touching down, the music concluding – all at the same moment. A little thing perhaps, but the first time I saw this it struck me as simply brilliant. It is doubtful that the live audience inside the Opera House felt the same impact from that moment that the TV audience did.

This is, for me, a prime example of what well-done televised opera can do. There’s something sublime about it – rather than beating you over the head, as some directors do (witness the multiple-screen technique used – and way-overused – in last year’s Met broadcast of Tristan und Isolde), or resorting to little visual tricks or gimmicks (such as singers playing to the camera, which can be a good or bad thing), we have a case where the director literally create an artistic moment simply from what is happening on the stage. This is an example not just of good television opera, but good television period.

This isn’t intended to be a jab at the Met; some of the effects and camera angles they’ve employed over the past three years have been extraordinary. But I’m reminded of what a sportswriter once said about referees – the less you notice them, the better the job they’re doing. It’s one thing to sit up and think, “Wow – what a great special effect!” It’s quite another when the power lies in the moment itself – and it isn’t until later, so drawn into the moment are you, that you reflect on the elements that made it so powerful. A pity we don’t see this kind of craftsmanship more often.

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