How about some music?
The atmosphere at the Regal 20 in Brooklyn Park on Saturday morning was undoubtedly electric. When was the last time, after all, you saw a group of adults standing in line waiting to get into a movie theater? Or, at least, adults not dressed in some kind of sci-fi costume? And, to top it off, they weren’t even waiting to see a movie.
It was the debut of the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcast of the Saturday matinee, with a performance of Bellini's I Puritani (The Puritans). (Yes, I know the actual debut was last Saturday, but the bastardized – I mean, abridged – one-act English-language version of The Magic Flute doesn’t really count, at least if you’re talking about the full operatic experience.) And it had the feel of an opening night performance, the buzz of excitement from those waiting for the door to open. There were representatives on-hand from MPR, who were really forced to embrace the new technology even though it might eventually mean the death-knell of classical music on public radio. And nobody really knew what to expect from the whole thing – would it be like watching the opera on TV? Would the sound and picture be any good? Would the telecast itself move, or remain more or less static. What about the intermission features? And what of the opera itself?
First things first, and we might as well start with the star, Anna Netrebko. She was, in a word, terrific. As someone behind us said, watching Netrebko offer a thumbs-up to the cameraman backstage after act one, “she loves the camera, and the camera loves her.” Both very true. I hadn’t really heard Netrebko before, much less see her, and she really is something. True, there was a sour note near the end of act three, and some have critiqued her style as lacking warmth, but for the most part she was on her A game Saturday afternoon. She conveyed the impression of one who knows the camera is there, but doesn’t pander to it – she performed for those in the house, but at the same time framed herself perfectly within the screen.
Aside from Netrebko, the performances were steady, if unspectacular. But that is to be expected, in an opera that is centered around the soprano, who actually gets two mad scenes (although, as guest commentator Beverly Sills pointed out, the first one was actually only a little mad). The Met orchestra, led this day by bel canto expert Patrick Summers, was good as usual – the horns made an uneven entrance to the overture, but that was about it. One could quibble about the pacing here and there, but there is no question that the Met orchestra remains one of the best around.
Netrebko notwithstanding, I think the real star of the day was the telecast itself. After years of listening to the matinee broadcasts on radio, it was great fun to actually see what goes on at the Met, such as the very small broadcast booth from which Margaret Juntwait provides her commentary (although, as with baseball, it’s true that words can often paint a picture much more vivid than that provided by the naked eye).
Renee Fleming’s dressing-room interviews with Netrebko between acts were also fun – not necessarily breaking news, but quite interesting to actually see behind the scenes. (As was Beverly Sills’ comment that she personally preferred a lot of chaos and movement around her when she was in the dressing room, rather than simply being alone.) I think many would have enjoyed seeing the famed intermission opera quiz, but perhaps that’s for another show.
And speaking of Sills, it was delightful listening to her commentary before the opera and during the intermissions, talking about what it had been like to play the very role that Netrebko was now taking on, that of Elvira, the different approaches to mad scenes, and so on. (Not for nothing is her nickname Bubbles.) She was also charmingly blunt as to the shortcomings of Bellini’s plot, which was ridiculous even by operatic standards - a story about the battle between the Stuarts and the Puritans in Cromwell's England - but then, one doesn't particularly go to bel canto to enjoy the plot, after all. It's a showcase for the singers. (It was also fun to watch Juntwait, with one eye on the clock, trying to rein in Sills in time to return to the stage for the next act.
The telecast itself was anything but static, offering a variety of angles that gave the theater audience a view unlike any that could be had within the Met itself. (One source reported ten cameras were in use, including a hand-held one in the pit itself.) Shots of the musicians were so tight you could practically see the notes on the scores in front of them. The stage was seen at various times looking down from the top, looking up from the pit, from the wings – and yet seldom, I thought, in a way that was distracting, calling attention to itself.
Provocatively, the most interesting camera angle was also the most curious, a shot from the rear of stage left that encompassed not only the singer, but also the conductor and the darkened theater beyond. It was a stunning shot, at least the first couple of times it was used (especially during the second act mad scene with Netrebko lying on her back, literally hanging over the edge into the orchestra pit), not least because it offered the viewer a sight that nobody in the house itself would ever have seen. You could simultaneously study the conductor, keeping one eye on his orchestra and the other on the stage; get the sense of the performer, looking into the invisible audience beyond the footlights; even get a glimpse of the stage rigging, the spotlights, the small monitors that can only be seen by the singers onstage. It was fascinating.
But it was also disconcerting in a way. After all, opera, like other forms of theater, is about enveloping the audience with the magic of illusion, introducing them to exotic and foreign lands where people communicate in songs rather than regular speech. The high-def picture and terrific sound provides that, in spades – you could see every blemish, every rivulet of perspiration. But being able to see the man behind the curtain, so to speak, sort of changes the perspective. Perhaps the Met figured since the audience was already one step removed, sitting in a theater watching a performance in another theater, the need for illusion wasn’t so important.
At any rate, it was a remarkable telecast, the kind of live theater that you usually only see in the theater nowadays. Bravo to the Met for putting this together, and high hopes for the remainder of the telecasts in the series.
Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany and at Holy Childhood in St. Paul the musical accompaniment to the Mass was Alfred Pilot’s Messe Des Rois Mages (Mass of the Three Magi). Now, I don’t know much about Alfred Pilot – Google searches doen’t come up with anything on him, and there don’t appear to be any recordings of his work. (So if you know anything about him, please let us know!) And this is a pity, for let it be known that the Messe Des Rois Mages is a wonderful piece of seasonal liturgical music that reminds us not only that we’re still in the Christmas season, but also of the joyous good news that is Epiphany. As near as I can tell, Pilot seems to be something of a French Vaughan Williams, incorporating familiar French melodies into the body of his Mass text (which is rendered entirely in Latin). This is most evident in two parts of the Mass, the Gloria and Sanctus.
The Gloria opens with the very recognizable “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrain from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a melody which is repeated several times throughout the first part of the hymn. Later on one can, if listening closely, detect a line, picked up by both solo clarinet and violin, which is strongly suggestive of the opening from “The First Noel.” The Gloria concludes with an adaptation of the happy melody from the lilting carol, “Il est ne le divine enfant” (“Now Is Born the Divine Christ Child”).
Likewise, the Sanctus opens with very familiar music – Bizet’s rousing Marcho dei Rei, the “March of the Magi” from the L’Arlesienne Suite No. 1. And march, it does – trust me, you’d recognize this music in an instant if you heard it; it’s found on most discs of classical Christmas music. For some reason, a march seems to me to be the perfect accompaniment of the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
This music is charming – the first time I heard it, I broke into several surprised, delighted smiles at hearing such familiar themes being used in a liturgical setting. In the years since, it has never failed to produce that same smile.
Which leads one to wonder just how well-known this piece is? Over at Amy Welborn’s blog, several commentators reported hearing a Gloria in the Christmas Mass of their respective parishes that used the same “Angels We Have Heard on High” theme. Was it Pilot’s Messe they heard? Hard to tell, since some also expressed the opinion that the words weren’t a very good fit for the music. Now, I don’t share that opinion myself, so there could be a couple of differences. Perhaps it isn’t Pilot’s music at all or, if it is, maybe it’s been translated into the vernacular. (Heaven alone knows what happens if you give people too much Latin, after all.) It points out, at any rate, how nice it is when the music director provides the name and composer of the settings of the Ordinary.
Alfred Pilot’s Messe Des Rois Mages proves that liturgical music need not be dolorous to be dignified, and also that it need not be Haugen-Haas to be joyful. Yes, Virginia, classical music does not have to be boring. And may we have more of it in the years to come, especially with the coming changes in the Mass.