Opera heroes on the big screen

The Metropolitan Opera's live telecasts to movie houses pass the test of two very demanding masterpieces, Britten's Peter Grimes and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
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<i>Peter Grimes</i>. (The Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera's live telecasts to movie houses pass the test of two very demanding masterpieces, Britten's Peter Grimes and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

The Metropolitan Opera's High Definition satellite broadcasts of Saturday operas now cover 600 cinemas worldwide in countries as far apart as Poland and New Zealand. More than a dozen of the theaters are accessible to Seattle and its "great nearby" in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and B.C. Most recently, the series offered two of its most ambitious undertakings so far — Benjamin Britten's twentieth century masterpiece Peter Grimes on March 15, and Wagner's five-hour marathon Tristan und Isolde a week later. By any standards these were outstanding performances. The productions were in their different ways both innovative and largely true to the works — that elusive combination. The singers sang well, looked good and acted with fine conviction. Standards in the pit and on the podium were exceptionally high. You can't ask much more of an opera experience and often have to settle for much less, even at the Met. Peter Grimes was given a striking if notably sombre new production by John Doyle. Set designer Scott Pask provided a looming backdrop of black-tarred buildings in the fishing village on the British North Sea coast. This is where the tragedy of the unstable and hunted fisherman unrolls to its inexorable and haunting end, with the protagonist's suicide by drowning in the sea, which provides the opera with much of its atmosphere. The coloration of the production is characteristically black throughout — the women of the town were uniformly costumed in black fish-net fabric that made them look like Hitchcock's sinister flock in "The Birds." And in the third act party scene, the guests, all in black, looked more like a death squad than a group of revellers. All this served to illustrate an important theme in the work — that the apparent normalcy of the Borough community conceals a hysterical, and ultimately fatal, collective fear of people who are different, like the ambitious and visionary Grimes. This reflected Britten's uneasy relations, as a pacifist and member of a sexual minority, with the Britain of the early 1940s from which he had exiled himself to the United States with his companion, the singer Peter Pears, the work's dedicatee and its first protagonist at the London premiere in 1945. The almost uniformly bleak tone of the production and its set may have suppressed some of the work's variety of mood and color. The sea is glittering and sunny as well as violent and dangerous; the Borough community has some real conviviality, and its concern over the death of Grimes' apprentice is genuine and justified. However, overall the production was a powerfully imaginative response to the opera, and its closing moments after Grimes' death, when the sombre buildings part and show the Borough population in a brighter but still strange and equivocal sea-suffused light, did go to the heart of this complex and troubling work. Anthony Dean Griffiths brought just the right mixture of lyricism and dangerous intensity to the title role; Patricia Raclette was a moving Ellen Orford; that magnificent singer and character actress Felicity Palmer excelled as the scheming and neurotic Mrs. Sedley; and Teddy Tahu Rhodes made a strong contribution as Ned Keane, the apothecary. The chorus and orchestra delivered their important contributions with confidence and power. Donald Runnicles led the whole performance with vigor and commitment. Tristan und Isolde the following week was also notable for what came out of the pit. James Levine, one of the world's most experienced Wagner conductors, gives spacious readings of these long scores, but they are readings from the inside: you feel that they come from the music's inner core. The Met orchestra responded with superlative playing, not least from the woodwinds. The oboe and the English horn are of special importance in this score. Nathan Hughes, formerly principal oboe of the Seattle Symphony, played the first oboe part with a sensitivity of phrasing and a beauty of tone beyond praise. Dieter Dorn's production and Jurgen Rose's sets emphasised the work's mythic other-worldly character with long stage perspectives leading the eye into a never quite definite distance, just as the music takes the listener through long sequences of never quite resolved harmonies. The lighting, by Max Keller, provided a subtle "lit from behind" atmosphere and it was interesting during one of the intervals to be taken backstage and shown just what a complex process was needed to create that effect. The video presentation of the production for satellite transmission had some problems. The video director, Barbara Willis Sweete, sometimes split the screen, so that the audience could see the whole stage picture, but also, in magnified close-up, particular characters or groups of characters. This worked reasonably well in the first act, when we could see both the whole boat on its way from Ireland to Cornwall and also, in tighter focus, Isolde's and Brangaene's cabin. But it was over-used, and became a distraction. There were sometimes as many as six cameo pictures, which gave the impression that each character was singing in a private cocoon, with no relation to the others. This is what can happen in bad Wagner productions. This was a good one, with much convincing interaction between the characters. Its full qualities would have been better conveyed in a straighter presentation. As was widely reported in advance of the transmission, Deborah Voigt singing Isolde for the first time was to have been partnered by Ben Heppner singing Tristan - a role he first undertook for Seattle Opera - but he was ill and two different stand-ins were recruited for the first two performances. In the transmitted performance, Tristan was sung by Robert Dean Smith, who had flown in the day before from Berlin to fill the gap with little if any rehearsal. He showed a strong stage presence and a fine voice, if understandably rather cautious and without the sense of desperate abandon that the third act ideally requires from a Tristan. Deborah Voigt made a magnetic Irish princess - gleaming-eyed, passionate, and imperious- equal in her acting and her singing to the legendary demands of the role. Michelle de Young was strong Brangaene. I saw both transmissions in London. It would be nice to say that I had been sent there by an enlightened Crosscut management to provide some local color on the reception of the Grimes transmission by a British audience (and also the Tristan, which takes place partly in British waters), but the prosaic truth is, alas, that I was visiting at my own expense. The London audiences responded very well, giving very close attention to both performances and without restlessness during the long Tristan transmission. Both these great works came through strongly and made their mark, across thousands of electronic miles and notwithstanding the grotty environment of a suburban cinema. With them, the Met has shown that its courageous venture can succeed in challenging areas of the operatic repertoire. Meanwhile, next Saturday the live telecast is the legendary Franco Zeffirelli production of La Boheme.


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