Anna Netrebko (sitting at the center, pink dress) in a party scene at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, which was shown in movie theaters around the world on Dec. 15. Copyrighted photo by Ken Howard, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.
Entering theater 7 in the Regal Hamburg Pavilion 16 cinema, my ears were greeted by the sounds of an orchestra tuning up.
It’s not a typical Saturday afternoon at the movies.
The orchestra was live, though it was not in the theater. It was just over 700 miles away at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York’s Lincoln Center.
For years, we’ve been able to hear Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinees live on the radio, locally on WEKU-88.9 FM. But last year, the nation’s leading opera house made an international splash with its live high-definition broadcasts to movie theaters around the world. The 2007-08 season started last weekend with Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and continues New Year’s Day with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Eight operas are planned for live HD broadcasts this season, including the 5 1/2-hour Richard Wagner marathon of Tristan und Isolde, on March 22.
If you are an opera lover, these shows are a must, and if you aren’t, you may have a conversion experience at the movie theater. The HD broadcasts take you up as close as you could hope to be for a Met production, with sound that has to be second only to being in the Met. Put it this way: I’ve heard Anna Netrebko, who played Juliette last Saturday, in recordings before. Hearing her Saturday made me go home and download a whole lot more Anna.
One person I chatted with said it was disconcerting to have the sensation of being at a live performance, but see all the closeups the broadcast provided. It was an interesting point, but a static camera giving an audience view of the stage would be a boring way to watch the show. And really, those closeups are part of the trade-off we get for not hearing the voices live. In exchange, we get views of the stage, the costumes and the stars that no one in Lincoln Center is getting.
Right after intermission, we got an overhead view of Romeo and Juliette’s wedding bed — they were decent — that made it look as if they were floating in space with starlight on the floor.
There were a few occasions where something that seemed choreographed to play to a 3,800-seat theater didn’t work as well on film, like the dying couple lurching for each other in the final scene.
The thing I did find disconcerting, though simultaneously cool, was the way the cameras would slip behind the curtain during scene changes. Yes, it was neat to see Roberto Alagna, the opera’s Romeo, doing vocal exercises as the set was changed. But it also killed that suspension of disbelief. Opera has never been big on suspension of disbelief, but as the form becomes more theatrical, producers and directors might want to pay more attention to that. These are elements that may work better as DVD extras — five titles from this season will be released.
For the broadcast, soprano/interviewer Renee Fleming was backstage during intermission. Her initial questions for Anna featured some of the most blatant TelePrompTer reading we’ve seen in a while, though she eased into it and drew out funny moments such as Anna saying she’s not as innocent as Juliette and Roberto saying he’d like to play Romeo opposite Fleming.
The best humor though was of the unintended variety during Fleming’s we’re-walking-we’re-walking interview with conductor Placido Domingo. As they strolled from his dressing room to the orchestra pit door, several stagehands and other crew members popped out of doors along the hallway and were immediately contemplating, on global TV, how to dodge around the strolling opera legends and their camera. Fun.
The most fun though was seeing the show with other opera fans, like the woman behind me who kept referring to the baritone singing Mercutio as, “my husband, Nathan Gunn.” This is a passionate bunch, and its more fun sharing the experience with them rather than sitting at home in your PJs, even on the cold, rainy afternoon that was Dec. 15.