The Met opera, live at a mall movie theater near you

The Met's experiment in highly produced telecasts to local film screens proves surprisingly successful, especially at the bargain prices. Our reviewer reports on the first five shows, as seen in suburban Seattle and London.
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The Met's experiment in highly produced telecasts to local film screens proves surprisingly successful, especially at the bargain prices. Our reviewer reports on the first five shows, as seen in suburban Seattle and London.

The weekly radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera - for half a century a world standard of quality, variety, and generous accessibility in international opera - have now been joined on some Saturdays by live transmissions in high-definition video and superlative audio of selected works from the Met's current season. This new idea, combining high technical skill in the telecast with the excitement of seeing a risky, live-live performance at very close range, is thrilling to see. Mozart's Magic Flute, in a version adapted for children, debuted the series in December and was followed in February by Bellini's I Puritani and a superlatively acted, sung, and played Eugene Onegin. March offered a lively, warm, and funny Barber of Seville in a new production by Bartlett Sher, artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theater. The other opera in the program so far has been The First Emperor, commissioned by the Met from Chinese composer Tan Dun and transmitted shortly after its world premiere in February. It was notable for brilliance of spectacle, fascinating crossover combinations of Chinese and Western music and acting styles, and in the title role a performance by Placido Domingo demonstrating once again an imperial command of the stage and a longevity at the summit of his profession worthy of any Chinese dynasty. These live telecasts take place in movie theaters in North America, Japan, Britain, and Scandinavia. Met General Director Peter Gelb, who conceived this idea, says each opera gets a total audience of around 60,000, some 20 times the capacity of the Met itself. The venues within reach of Seattle have been shopping-mall multiplexes in Auburn and Redmond. The shows are normally sold out, and Redmond now fills two theaters. In England, where I saw Barber of Seville at a theater in Clapham, a semi-gentrified London suburb, the technical facilities and the general amenities were below the standards achieved in the U.S., and the performance was impaired by four interruptions of the sound. No such problems in the American showings. Apart from the First Emperor repeat, where only 17 were in the Seattle downtown audience, the transmissions I have seen were well attended by obviously experienced opera goers. Generally mature, and seeming unused to visiting out-of-town multiplexes at the odd hour of 10:30 on Saturday mornings, audience members can be seen making their way across the mall parking lots, Mapquest directions in hand. They mingle uneasily with the younger crowds queuing for such rival attractions as The Gigolos, and then settle down, with a mixture of expectation and scepticism, to see how this new experiment with virtual opera compares with experience of the real thing. We need not have worried. On top of the very high quality of visual and audio reproduction, the telecast producers manage imaginatively to convey much of the experience of actually going to a performance in an opera house. The camera work and sound systems gave all sound quality and sight lines comparable to premium seats at a live performance. It's like being at a chamber opera – an unusual feeling of intimate proximity to grand opera. At the beginning, we see the audience assembling and, as one does in the opera house, we peer into the pit to see the orchestra warming up and tuning up. Just as in a real opera theater, we get occasional glimpses at climactic points in the music of a maestro's bald patch and flailing baton obtruding into the view of the stage. Each transmission starts with an introduction by a guest celebrity, and during the intermissions we enjoy film of rehearsal sequences and interviews with singers and other participants on stage immediately after curtain fall or in their dressing rooms. There were some very good moments – Mikhail Baryshnikov emphasising the Russianness and importance to Russians of Eugene Onegin with a fine mixture of passion and restraint, Anna Netrebko's blend of relief and giddy pleasure as she came off the stage, still panting, after a successful first act in Puritani, complete with a glimpse of the individual employed by the Met to wipe the sweat off the singers' brows as they leave the stage. There are some who find Gelb's emphasis on singers and personalities and stars excessive, and it is maybe overdone on the radio broadcasts. Mostly, it works well in the telecasts. And you can always escape by going out to buy popcorn or to admire the architectural splendors of modern malls. At $18 a ticket, no one can complain about the cost, though it will be interesting to see whether in future seasons the Met increases the price, and I discovered London prices were (typically) about three times greater. Nothing can fully equal the experience of actually being physically present at live performances, whether at Lincoln Center or by Seattle Opera, in Portland or in Vancouver. Very likely, these Met transmissions well help local companies, and the Met, by bringing more people to discover opera-with-popcorn. There's only one more telecast opera this season, Puccini's Triticco on April 28, and on April 15 Eugene Onegin is being repeated, and should on no account be missed. Next season's plans include Tristan und Isolde, and it will be interesting to see how the format adapts to a five-hour Wagner marathon. I'll certainly be there.


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