Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Final Curtain

By Mitchell

The curtain fell Saturday on the Metropolitan Opera’s inaugural season of high-definition theater telecasts, with the live performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Tryptich), three one-act operas consisting of the tragic Il Tabarro, the heart-wrenching Suor Angelica, and the hilarious Gianni Schicchi, all conducted by the Met’s music director James Levine. It was, as I said, the final telecast of the season, and a fitting end to a remarkable innovation by the Met.

Much had been made of the sheer scope of Il Trittico - the largest production ever staged at the Met. However bit it was, it was worth it - each raised curtain revealed lavishly designed, realistic sets - no symbolism or minimalism here - and each revealed set was warmly greeted by the audience. When even your sets get applause, you know you're doing something right - as long as it's not at the expense of the singers!

As for the performance itself, Trittico featured a little something for everyone. Il Tabarro (The Cloak), as director Jack O’Brien mentioned in the introduction to the broadcast, is a story where everyone’s secrets are hidden in open sight. It’s the story of a couple drifted irrevocably apart following the death of their child, an event which occurs prior to the start of the opera and is only gradually revealed to the audience. The woman, Giorgetta (Maria Guleghina) has grown dissatisfied with her life as a ship captain’s wife, yearning for the Paris of her youth, and finding as a substitute for the romance of the city of light an actual romance with the handsome stevedore Luigi (Salvatore Licitra). Her husband Michele (Juan Pons) is in denial, yearning for the way things used to be, seemingly unable to comprehend the heartache of his wife or the reasons for her sudden distance from him. As we all know, these things never turn out well in the operatic world. Suffice it to say that “the cloak” of the title comes to have a significant meaning in the end.

Some have suggested that Guleghina lacked the smoldering sexuality needed for a convincing Giorgetta, and this is true; however, her Giorgetta is a weary, almost pathetic figure, desperate to find an exit from an existence that as become a prison, a life that traps her in painful memories form which there can be no escape. Giorgetta remains alive at the end of Il Tabarro, which for her is not necessarily a good thing. Pons, ever steady and reliable, manages to squeeze more than an ounce of humanity and sympathy from a role that could easily remain irritating, if not maddening. Whatever is faults (and by the end there’s at least one major fault on display), his Michele is a man who clearly was a good and decent man once upon a time, before life finished with him. As for Licitra, he’s clearly the real deal, one of the tenors (Juan Diego Flores and Ramon Vargas being two others) that should hold the opera world in good stead over the next few years. Luigi may be a cuckolder, but it’s impossible not to feel for him nonetheless. Which is a key element of tragedy, having characters with whom one can sympathize. Otherwise, there’s little to be tragic about.

Tragic doesn’t begin to describe Suor Angelica, part two of Trittico, but heart-rending, as I suggested, comes close. It, too, is a story of secrets, of Sister Angelica (Barbara Frittoli), the young woman living a life of penance in the convent, and the secret that comes to light in the fading sunlight of the day. (One of the characteristics shared by Tabarro and Angelica is a single-day storyline that gradually transforms the set from faint daylight to the darkness of night, mirroring the increasing darkness of the plot. In the case of Angelica, this is accompanied by luminescent nun’s habits reflecting the starlight; bringing, as it were, the heavens to the convent.)

As Angelica, Frittoli brings a wrenching performance, displaying the heartbreak of this young woman, a princess exiled to the convent for a sin that has produced a small son. Her constant dream over the seven years of her cloistered life has been for news of her family, but when it comes (in the form of her aunt, the Princess, wonderfully played by Stephanie Blyth, who appears in all three operas), it shatters what little peace Angelica may have left. It is an emotionally draining finale, although not without hope, and both Frittoli and the audience are wiped out by the end. Beverly Sills, the guest commentator on the telecast, mentioned her own efforts at playing the three lead female roles in Trittico, and how Angelica can take everything from you, leaving you with an empty tank for the finale.

After two acts consisting of tragedy and heartbreak, there’s a desperate need for lightness, which is delivered in the form on Puccini’s only comedy, one of the most beloved in opera, Gianni Schicchi. This story also takes place over the course of a single day, and what a day it is, full of scheming and greedy family members looking as if they’d walked out of an episode of the old Nero Wolfe TV series, surrounding the deathbed of their rich relative, each trying to outdo the other in terms of pious mourning, each thinking of the inheritance they stand to gain with the reading of the will. There are no secrets in this story – everything’s laid out in the open.

No secrets, that is, except in the mind of the title character, Gianni Schicchi (Alessandro Corbelli), one of the peasant class made good, a clever man with a deft way of handling “problems.” The problem, in this case, is the discovery of a will that leaves everything to a monastery of local monks. What, the devastated relatives ask Schicchi, can be done to reverse such an obvious injustice? The scheme Schicchi hatches – to impersonate the dead man, suddenly brought to life and calling for the notary to make out his final will – sets the stage for a hilarious climax that, as Schicchi promises, gives everyone “what they deserve.”

The centerpiece of Schicchi is the aria “O mio babbino caro,” one of the most famous in opera, and if you’re going to be singing it you’d better be on, because half the audience is going to be singing along with you. In this performace, the responsibility fell to Olga Mykytenko, playing Schicchi’s niece Lauretta. Was she up to it? Technically, yes – but there was just something lacking. The emotional impact wasn’t there; perhaps, after Tabarro and Angelica, there simply wasn’t any emotion left for the audience. (For the audience in the theater, the emotional impact of the Angelica finale was further blunted by a quick cut to a documentary feature on the Met's audition process. Interesting, certainly, but after being wrung out like that, the audience needed time to breathe a little.) The applause was there, but it wasn’t the showstopper that it can and deserves to be.

(And on that point, a note about the telecast, and the increasingly annoying tendency of the director, following applause lines, to cut to a long shot of the stage encompassing a panoramic view of the Met theater. Yes, it’s a way for the movie theater audience to feel more a part of the Met, but is it really necessary? Far better, in my opinion, to focus on the set and the singers, and the glow that comes when you’ve nailed it and you know it.)

As Schicchi gleefully asks the audience’s forgiveness for having pulled one over on the family, the curtain falls, and Il Trittico comes to a triumphant end; and with it, the HD season as well. So what are we to make of the Met’s foray into video? Well, if the audience numbers are any indication, it’s been a rousing success. The Met has already announced next year’s schedule, featuring an increase in telecasts from six to eight. Theaters have been sold out worldwide (the theater we attended added an extra screen for the final three telecasts). Thousands of people have been introduced to the world of the Met, people for whom a trip to New York and pricey tickets were pretty much out of reach. (As a side note, the audience for Saturday’s telecast was – well, put it this way: a person of about 40, entering the theater, would have lowered the average age by at least twenty years. This was a change from previous broadcasts, which featured a younger, more varied audience. If overheard conversation was any indication, many of these theatergoers were first-timers to the broadcast. I’m not sure why this was the case; perhaps the nice weekend weather sent younger fans to the beach and the lake?)

More than a few have expressed reservations about the telecasts, chief among which the fear that, as their grows, so also will the tendency to cast based on HD appearance (say, Anna Netrebko) rather than vox ability. And this may indeed be a concern at some point in the future. But for now, if this season is any indication, the fears appear to be unfounded. Many of those I’ve talked with who’ve listened only to the broadcasts on radio have excitedly asked how the experience was in the theater; the excitement of the event was palpable even over the radio dial. That’s not to say that every broadcast has been or will be that way, but if the thrill is still there for those who can’t see it, that’s a good sign.

As for the telecasts themselves, the production quality was impressive. To be sure, there were shaky moments, as there would be in any live telecast (a tendency for extreme close-up at the expense of context during the ensemble scenes, for example); but for the most part the angles were illuminating, the choices intelligent, the innovations provocative – shots from behind the singers, for instance, allowing us to glimpse both the conductor and the audience beyond the footlights. But for Trittico these innovations were mostly absent (save one shot in Tabarro that gave the theater audience an angle unknown to anyone in the live audience); the focus was on the singers, and the story. The singers were very good (as was the Met orchestra, superb as usual for Levine), and the story – well, the story was pure Puccini, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

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