Sunday, March 16, 2014

Regrets from the Met; an Explanation of Yesterday's Silence

According to a statement posted on the Met website, the audio outage in yesterday's transmission of Werther was caused by "a technical problem with the satellite carrying the audio feed." The problem impacted "the majority of U. S. Theaters."

They have posted the final scene so that viewers who were short-changed yesterday can at least hear what they missed. But this final scene needs to be felt in the immediate context of what came before. This offering only reheats yesterday's meal.

I don't think the Met owes us anything. Yes, the drama of placement was about as extreme as one can imagine, but this was the first widespread problem during a live transmission of the HD series. We need to be patient with challenges in return for the amazing insights that the series gives us on a regular basis.

The Met does owe more than a simple apology to its theaters. This blip was the kind of mistake that can happen in an individual theater, especially in multiplex operations where operators have their hands full. The theater in which I watch HD ruined Rusalka by trying to stretch the image. They could not fix it and there was no way to watch it.

Many people in my cinema, and several who wrote to me yesterday thought that the problem was local at the time that it happened. The Met should be prepared with "technical difficulty" messages to inform us if anything like this happens again in the future. 

Quicker response times are important. Imagine trying to appease angered opera fans when no real explanation can be offered. The Met's regrets were directed toward us, but should have been offered to the venues.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sex, Death, and Unplanned Silence; Met Werther Live in HD

Did your sound disappear during the last five minutes of the transmission of Werther Live in HD? I watched in Milford Connecticut and the sound onscreen disappeared during the G minor passage that culminated the final five minutes of the opera. The sound returned again suddenly for curtain calls.

Audiences accept random moments of mishap during performance; a clipped entrance, incorrect words, a tweak of intonation. Why? Because they are very human kinds of mistakes. What about when the mistakes are not human but technological?

In the Eyre production of Werther, it was the Wagnerian join of sex and death that made the deepest impression. Throughout the final scene Kaufman (as Werther) and Koch (as Charlotte) became intimate as the scene progressed toward the death of Werther. As the curtain came down it appeared that Charlotte might join Werther with a bullet from the other pistol in the dueling case.

Finally the repressed and denied emotions we had followed all afternoon had burst through to the surface. Then silence.

The video feed was normal, so we saw Kaufman and Koch who suddenly looked like fish as the music (that we could not hear) became quieter. 

Since I know this opera I was able to run sound in my mind, but the experience was unforgettable. The final moments of the opera seemed violently repressed by the silence, as if censored. John Cage taught us to hear silence as part of the experience, as part of the music, and in this transmission it seemed very loud.

I have always pointed out the unique advantages that hearing live concert and opera transmissions. But there are also idiomatic challenges. Most often these are localized; bad focus, thin sound, not or simply turning on aisle lights during intermission. This challenge seemed bigger in scope, and it made an impression on the way we heard the opera. Are we less patient because the cause was technological?

Where did you hear the transmission? Did you lose sound? Were you able to continue to follow, or were you one of the enraged?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Escaping from one's Self; Prince Igor Live-In-HD

Folk tales testify that our life flashes before our eyes as we teeter on the edge of death. In the Met's new production of Prince Igor it was not so much life as it was Act One.

Dimitri Tcherniakov and Gianandrea Noseda presented a revisionist Prince Igor in which filmed close-ups of Igor's bleeding face were projected across the stage in black and white to punctuate the first act and interpret the music as dream and fantasy.

The desire to connect the fragmentary tableaux that comprise the music actually written by Borodin is understandable, and both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov contributed to the version of this opera we often hear. This production stripped away the music not written by Borodin, but added another interpretation in its place.

The Tcherniakov and Noseda conception was often fascinating. We were asked to understand the strange actions of the first act as the wish of a general who had just fallen on the battlefield. This allowed the ballet of Polovtsian dancers and the interaction with a kind and benevolent enemy, cast in a field of poppies, to assume an Oz-like meaning. The action represents what life as a prisoner would be like in fantasy. Since Borodin's music for Act One was set in an exotic style deliberately different from the rest of the opera, there was musical justification for this concept.

The triumphant music of the closing act is seldom convincing in other productions, but here it took on ironic shades as Igor was a portrayed as a living victim of war who was only a broken shell of the person he was when he departed.

An alternative ending was appended onto the score as Igor began the process of rebuilding (both himself and his city). The music that closed the opera was "The River Don Floods," written by Borodin for an opera-ballet called Mlada. Yes, this was music written by Borodin, but without any intention for being used in this opera. The greater reinterpretation of the grand ending had already successfully taken place in this production. This appended music became a layer of "help" similar to that given by Rimsky and Glazunov that the opera did not need. We were escaping from Igor's self, not Borodin's.

Host Eric Owens reminded us that this was the 75th transmission in the Live-in-HD series. The series has developed, and this was apparent during the outstanding camera work during Yaroslavna's lament in Act Three. The camera was kind to Oksana Dyka. The close-up of her expression gave insight into that critical emotional moment in this opera. The color of her singing and the sound of the clarinet that wove through the texture was powerful.

Mikhail Petrenko also gave a detailed account of Galitsky in aggressive and menacing vocal sound. He made this hateable character vivid. Ildar Abdrazakov was a constant presence as Igor. His acting focused the intensity and deep vulnerability of this elusive character. His singing was detailed with phrasings possible only for those with super-human breath support. The Met orchestra sounded great throughout, and the energy of their sound was a significant part of the narrative.

Prior to the opening of the Prologue a motto was projected: "To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from one's self." This production mused on the ways in which inner wars are as devastating as military wars.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sonic Champagne from Berliner Philharmoniker on New Year's Eve

Pop! The cork flew from the bottle with the opening phrase of the Dvořák Symphonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46 no. 8. This concert of The Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Simon Rattle and transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall, seemed like a gift. It was not announced when the season was originally posted, but appeared a few weeks ago on their listing of scheduled live events.

The concert was titled Das Silvesterkonzert, and it had a formal but yet relaxed feel. The audience was even highlighted in soft bluish light. Annette Gerlach moderated the concert, saying a few words before each segment of music.

The event gave us a chance to hear pianist Lang Lang perform the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Rattle and the BP. This work is one of the two concerti on the disc recently released by the orchestra with Lang as soloist. Surrounded as it was by energized dance music, Lang had the perfect opportunity to bring out the playful edges of the Prokofiev third.

His technical machinery is remarkable. But what pleased most in this performance was his extremely quiet and tender sound in places like the nocturnal fourth variation of the second movement. The dotted rhythm octave-calls followed by whisper quiet figuration was haunting. Lang made the piano seem orchestral in its own right, but he also listened carefully to the orchestra, matching articulations and shadings throughout.

There is a passage in the lyrical central tableau of the third movement where many live performances lose fizzle. It begins with the passage for solo piano in D minor. But Lang played with the precision of a clock escapement, and kept the energy of the work leaning forward.

The live filming of this concert was also quite musical. Several angles showed close-up shots of Lang's fingerings, and the crisp energy of his articulations. There was a very clean shot of castinet playing in the first movement, and a very good balance between soloist and orchestra, which was useful in this concerto where the orchestra had such an important role in the narrative.

There was no intermission, but it nevertheless took several minutes for the mechanical lifts to swallow the piano into the stomach of the hall and to restore the stage for the remainder of the event.

A set of three more Dvořák Slavonic dances followed, this time from Op. 72. The orchestra performed No. 1, the Odzemek in B major, the slow and elegant No. 2 in E minor, and closed with No. 7 in C major. One always listens for the gear changes in this style. It is informative to hear how good orchestras anticipate and shape them. We got to see Rattle enjoy the two six-bar phrases in the middle of the C major trio in No. 2. His smile was all that was needed to communicate the lovely strangeness of these two phrases awash in a sea of longing set in four-bar phrases.

I'm not sure that the third movement of the Hindemith Symphonic Dances fit into this program, but it is rarely heard and was enjoyable for that reason alone.

A Khachaturian set followed with four movements from the Gayane suite, including the Sabre Dance, Dance of the Young Kurds, the adagio Gayane used by Kubrick, and closing with the wonderfully rustic Lezginka.

As an encore, Rattle played two works by Brahms, the Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F, and closed with the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.

Goodbye 2013, you have been (mostly) good to us. 

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