Live in HD? Donizetti’s Anna Bolena from the Met in Pixels

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A tortured Smeaton (Tamara Mumford) confesses all to Anna Bolena (Anna Netrebko)

A tortured Smeaton (Tamara Mumford) confesses all to Anna Bolena (Anna Netrebko)

Anna Bolena
Gaetano Donizetti
Felice Romani, libretto
Metropolitan Opera House: 10/15/2011
HD Transmission

Anna Bolena – Anna Netrebko
Jane Seymour (Giovanna) – Ekaterina Gubanova
Henry VIII (Enrico) – Ildar Abdrazakov
Lord Richard Percy (Riccardo) – Stephen Costello
Mark Smeaton – Tamara Mumford
Lord Rochefort – Keith Miller
Sir Hervey – Eduardo Valdes

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Marco Armiliato

Production – David McVicar
Set Designer – Robert Jones
Costume Designer – Jenny Tiramani
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Andrew George
TV Director – Gary Halvorson

The audience poured out of the auditorium, through the lobby, and out into the parking lots with such a happy general purring that it seemed villainous to criticize the brave new entertainment Peter Gelb has brought the world. For almost five years now we have been able to watch High Definition video projections of performances at the Metropolitan Opera in movie theaters and auditoriums like the one at the Clark Art Institute, which I had just vacated. HD Live, as it’s called, has become a hit in most places, I hear—certainly in Great Barrington and Williamstown, where I’ve seen them, mingling with a dense, enthusiastic, mostly mature crowd. It’s often harder to get a ticket to one of these projections than it is to get a seat at Met itself.

What could be more commendable than creating a show that provides so much enjoyment? It brings opera to a vast global audience at reasonable prices, and at various times in the past half-century many have feared opera was in danger of dying out altogether, either from the expense of production and operation or the sheer irrelevance of its elitist origins. The Met opera broadcasts, which began in the early 1930s, changed many lives and, in synergy with the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Opera News, helped raise significant sums of money for the Met during the Great Depression, when the house desperately needed funds and people needed cheap entertainment. Are the times not similar today? The broadcasts only created more opera-lovers, and what possible harm could they do? (Actually I know of one example, but I’ll leave that for another time.) Wouldn’t the HD transmissions, with their spectacular images and vivid sound bring even more good into the world?

I see dark patches in these clouds, and I hear threatening thunder. In general, watching an HD projection isn’t very much like seeing an opera in the house, unless you’re addicted to opera glasses, and the performance is very, very loud—louder than any noise a singer or orchestra could make. The first is in the control of the Met technicians; the second is up to the exhibitors, and they seem to be eager to crank up the volume. At a projection of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Mahaiwe Arts Center, it only became objectionable after the intermission, but it was so painful, I considered leaving early. At the Clark projection in question, Anna Bolena, it never quite became painful, but it was unrealistically loud throughout. I begin with only gross, general defects, but there are more subtle problems, relating to the way opera is represented outside the buildings where opera is actually performed. Most of my fellow surrogate opera-goers were well-on in years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them were seasoned opera-lovers, who know very well what a real performance is like. But what about the people Peter Gelb would surely like to target—the younger people, who have never been in an opera house? Is an HD broadcast not likely to create and foster an expectation among them that they will be overwhelmed with waves of—largely undifferentiated—sound? That the prima donna will loom over them like the Atlas at Rockefeller Center? That blood and gore will pop out at their eyes as in a Hammer horror film?

If an HD transmission is not a reliable facsimile of the actual performance, what makes it that way? And how does this activity intermesh with the work of the singers and musicians? Anne Midgette of the Washington Post and I have both noted peculiarities in action and in musical balance which make no sense unless the work on stage is being compromised for the video. It should go without saying that the experience of the audience, who pay large sums of cash for seats in the house should not be deprived of anything for the sake of a broadcast, although the cranes and trolleys that shift the cameras around are an irritating distraction that one has to learn to ignore or add one more reason to avoid the Saturday matinees.

There is more. For one I was rather depressed to read the Met’s press release following the projection of Don Giovanni, which began with the headline: “Don Giovanni takes in $2.3 million in North America.” This sounds all too much like the world of Hollywood and network television. Of course money is good for opera, which soaks it up as a drunk soaks up cheap vodka, but I’ve just noted that this extramural box office may be taking charge of the whole operation. Historically, it is interesting to remember that the deal cut in the early 1930s by the new Met president and chairman, Paul D. Cravath, with RCA for the broadcasts, $5000 a performance, exceeded the box office at the house. Back then this was no more than a source of desperately needed income for an opera company that was still a for-profit corporation. The management did not dream of the broadcasts marketing and fundraising potential until it actually landed in their laps in the form of donations a few years later. Today, the HD transmissions, like all successful enterprises, serve a double purpose at least.They are first and foremost excellent marketing, a profitable gift, or seeming gift, in which the Met can make the gesture of opening its doors to anyone who can get to a local cinema and pay the price of the cheapest seat in the house itself. Concomitantly, a seat at an HD transmission yields a small sum, barely twice the cost of a movie, that comes in in massive quantities. According to the Met, Don Giovanni was seen live on more than 850 screens in North America by an estimated 107,000 people. An estimated additional 109,000 people saw it live on 625 screens in 42 additional countries; 28 in Europe, nine in Latin America, and Russia, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, and the Bahamas. This is hardly mass consumption by network or Hollywood standards: the excellent, but sadly neglected film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, which, I believe, came and went in the US almost unnoticed, was budgeted at $15 million and earned $11.5 globally. Of course we like to see the Met do well—we shouldn’t like to see it go away—and we like to see people going to the opera, which, in spite of a small declining trend overall and the failure of regional companies like Baltimore and Cleveland and the moribund state of the City Opera, seems to be fairly lively in North America.

The Met’s own close calls with extinction have led to several reinventions of itself. In the Great Depression it became a non-profit and set up all the aforementioned adjuncts that are still with us today (although satellite radio, the MetPlayer, and the HD transmissions discussed here have doomed the Saturday afternoon broadcasts to obsolescence. If so many people weren’t passionately attached to them as a Saturday afternoon ritual, they would have disappeared before now). Rudolf Bing’s energetic policies were a reinvention in themselves, beginning in 1949 and culminating in the opening of the Lincoln Center house in 1966, itself a bricks and mortar reinvention of the company. The rise of James Levine and the improvement of the orchestra marked another renewal and reorientation, a radical and important one. Under Levine and Volpe Met audiences have enjoyed a largely successful continuation of the traditional star singers combined with the world-class orchestra the institution lacked for most of its history.

Peter Gelb clearly sees his own tenure as an equally significant event, although its effect was not immediate. The star singers continued to roll in. Levine continued to produce brilliant playing from the orchestra, although less often, due to his Boston commitment and the onset of his physical disabilities. One can not complain too much about Gelb’s innovations. Other superstar conductors made appearances for single productions. Regieoper, often through co-productions with European houses, or with trendy locally-based directors like Mary Zimmerman and fashion guru Isaac Mizrahi, have not always been disasters. The Met responded to the 2008 financial collapse with a lottery of underwritten discount tickets. MetPlayer, an invaluable streaming service on the Met’s own site, was launched in 2008, two years after The Met: Live in HD, which appeared hard on Gelb’s arrival in December 2006.

I enjoyed the two transmissions I have seen in the past. Peter Grimes, which I saw a week after attending a performance of it in the house, was for me a welcome opportunity to observe the production “under a microscope,” as it were. I also enjoyed Lucia di Lammermoor as a projection, although the audio quality at the Mahaiwe was at best mediocre and at worst deafening. It was a fine production all round, with superb vocal and dramatic work from Netrebko and Abdrazakov and an even more impressive contribution from Beczala. The Mary Zimmerman’s production, mercifully free from gimmicks, seemed to work nicely as well.

Lucia is the only tragic opera of Donizetti to have continued in the Met repertoire since its beginning, along with Don Pasquale, L’Elisir d’Amore, and La Fille du Régiment. Anna Bolena, apart from the interest shown in it by the Santa Fe Opera (1959, 1970), has mainly enjoyed only occasional revivals as vehicles for the likes of Callas and Caballé (although she took up the role only late in her career), as well as superstars specializing in bel canto technique, like Sutherland, Sills, and Gruberova. While Sills kept Anna Bolena alive at the City Opera for some years, this is its first appearance at the Met. The publicity campaign has been intense, presenting Netrebko as a star of their caliber: the Met’s press releases, in fact, gave the impression that not much else of note was going on there in September and October. The direction of the HD Live transmission followed suit, keeping Netrebko front and center and larger than life throughout. I was even reminded occasionally of the surreal, studio-interpolated close-ups of Rita Hayworth in the Lady from Shanghai. While it was clear enough that Ms. Netrebko’s Anna failed to live up to her Lucia, as well as the standards set for her by Callas and the others, it was difficult to judge the vocal performances because of the sound in the auditorium and the way it was handled at the source.

But first of all I should point out the shortcomings of the Clark’s sound system, for which they can hardly be blamed, since the institution’s energies are absorbed in the grand expansion currently underway. The present auditorium, which is attractive and has good acoustics, will not be replaced in the new buildings, but it is scheduled for a make-over, and, if the museum doesn’t botch it, the problems I mention here should be solved in due time. The Clark used the same small speakers they have been using for conferences and lectures, two in front of the stage and two in immediately facing the balcony. I arrived a few minutes late and went up to the balcony, where I like to sit for concerts in any case. It was midway through the overture, and, finding one aisle blocked by a gentleman who was already deep in slumber, I found a place in the back row. The sound here was truly awful, very loud, with prominent voices and muddy orchestral textures. After the intermission I moved downstairs, where the sound was better, although no better than mediocre, but there was a little more space around the voices at least, and it wasn’t so loud. The orchestral sound remained dense mud throughout, except for the occasional wind solo. I concluded that most of the blame lay with Met engineers.

Just as the diva loomed over the other singers on the screen, she also dominated the audio, which was designed to favor the principle voice in any ensemble, whether a duet or a larger group. Ms. Netrebko was usually the beneficiary of this, although for a few minutes Jane Seymour (Ekaterina Gubanova) commanded our attention in her great scene with Anna, who then fell into sonic second place. There was a curious lack of focus in the secondary voices, as if the singers were out of the most effective range of the microphone and a good deal of reflected sound, that is out-of-phase information, was covering the direct sound of their voices. Given the fact that most of the singers ignored the integrity of the melodic line required by true bel canto, their lower registers, which were not always well-projected, sounded muddled. (Nebtrebko, on the other hand, has a wonderful, viola-like, lower register, which came across well, although she, too, sang her part as if it were a Verdian dramatic role.) The men suffered more than the women. Abdrazakov sounded effortful, as if he were having a bad day, and Stephen Costello, who sang Percy, sounded as if he were struggling with the everyday limitations of his voice and technique. The marked break in color between his upper and lower registers is certainly not right for bel canto. Otherwise his top was bright and handsome, and he phrased with style. Only Tamara Mumford’s present, variegated mezzo cut through the defective pickup. In fact her vivid characterization of Smeaton, and her artful phrasing made her the unintended star of the the show. She succeeded in lifting us up and making our blood run a little faster, as Netrebko could not.

The real joy of bel canto opera comes from the confluence of intense melodramatic situations with high lyric art. While we are excited and moved by the dramatic conflicts on stage, whether they artistically true or absurd, we should be rejoicing in the pure art of the singers, as they float elegant lines and negotiate difficult ornaments. The composers place us in a space of art for art’s sake and make us contemplate human error from that lofty perpective. Otherwise, especially in the case of Donizetti, who seems to have had an exceedingly dark view of the world, the experience is dour and heavy, as was the case of this misconceived Anna Bolena—misconceived musically, but not dramatically. David McVicar’s production was psychologically perceptive and attentive to what was written. The exaggerated camera angles and hyperactive camera movement of earlier productions has been somewhat subdued, at least in this production.

Felice Romani provided the composer with a libretto, which, although it is still pseudo-historical claptrap, is not without interest. All of the characters are deeply flawed. None of them are at all sympathetic, and one of them is a monster. Whether driven by love or lust, each one of them betrays another in some culpable and disastrous way. Only the king, the monster, remains consistent and true to himself throughout, as the one truly two-dimensional cut-out figure in the show. Abdrazakov treated Henry as an insane, grand guignol villain, rightly so, since there is not much more to do with the part, and he clearly had great fun in the process. His rough singing deprived his role of an essential ingedient, however, and, lacking the buoyancy of lyric musicality, it began to drag, although his encounter with Percy in Act I, sc. 2 was properly chilling, and the king’s failure to do the right thing in every case in Act II came across quite powerfully. By contrast, the conflicted Jane Seymour is the most interesting of the characters, doomed to follow her predecessor’s misery, although her early death came in childbirth. The Romani and Donizetti did everything but make her the protagonist. Ekaterina Gubanova sang with elegance and expression and made the most of her character’s struggles. Anna Netrebko’s voice was rich and beautiful, but her execution seemed deliberate and perhaps forced, relentlessly stressing AB’s queenly dignity, her most attractive quality. The television director gave her too much presence, to the point that she overstayed her welcome. She sang the role as a dramatic one, underplaying vocal ornament, which was kept to a minimum. Nebtrebko was admirable, without ever thrilling the audience, as her greatest predecessors have done, even past their prime.

So this Anna Bolena, which was never stupid or tasteless like some other recent productions, turned out to be something of an elephant. Vastly inflated in the publicity, it fell flat, at least in the projection—and at considerable cost, above all for Netrebko, who had to cancel one of her many other New York appearances because her voice needed rest after her ten-performance run, not a good sign for her future as a singer. While not a travesty like Mary Zimmerman’s Armida, similarly hyped as a vehicle for Renée Fleming, who, I thought, held herself back most protectively in the midst of her own ten-performance run in the spring of 2010, and certainly not as boring, it was no less a misrepresentation of an opera, in this case in musical style, rather than in dramatic content. This looks like the dark side of the Gelb years.

However, the scariest thing I’ve heard from Gelb’s quarter yet was his cool dimissal of Levine’s possibly diminished powers in the new production of Wagner’s Ring at the Met and his assumption that conducting a symphony orchestra could be more demanding than conducting the Ring, in which, as Gelb said, “Levine is just one of a cast of many characters involved in the massive production.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, as any Wagnerian knows. All of Wagner’s mature works revolve around the conductor. Does this mean that the Met will return to an era of Bodanzkys and Rosenstocks? It remains to be seen whether Fabio Luisi, who was singularly unsuccessful in Dresden, or the annual visit of a superstar conductor will make a difference.

Meanwhile, Live in HD seems here to stay. It is not a bad thing in itself, but the need for improvement on both ends is obvious. I have read complaints that some theaters have used the secondary digital projectors used for ads and announcements for the Met transmission. I should think it would be obvious that any cinema that undertakes a special initiative like this would make the effort to give their audiences the best possible experience. This would call for a renovation of the sound system at many venues. (It’s a special privilege, after all, to present a production from the Met, just as it is a privilege to see one. It’s not just about money.) The Met should establish high technical standards and provide detailed instructions for projectionists and managers, so that they will not simply crank up the volume, but attempt to reproduce what an opera actually sounds like. Perhaps they do. If they are, we can only assume they are being ignored.

Above all, go to your local opera houses, and, when you can get to New York, go to the Met. The $25 seats in the Family Circle are excellent. The sound is loud enough, as well as beautifully integrated and balanced in the Met’s fine acoustics.  You can take the whole spectacle in at one glance. And it’s the real thing.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.