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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Opera Review: Sex and Duct Tape

Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Renee Fleming (left) and Susan Graham in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 the Metropolitan Opera.
Saturday's high-definition telecast of Der Rosenkavalier was a definitive performance of Strauss's romantic comedy. (While I already reviewed an October performance of this production when I saw it in the theater, this was my first time going to a "Met Live in HD" telecast in a movie theater with a live audience.) Opera on the big screen is no substitute for the live experience of the opera house, but it is a fascinating alternative, whose potential is finally being harnessed by the Met in the Peter Gelb era.

These Met telecasts have a raw, "unedited" feel to them. Opera on video should be as close to the "live" experience, not the splice-and-dice "editing wizardry" that characterized VHS releases in the 1980s and '90s. The live feel is helped by interesting "intermission segments" which combine cast interviews (conducted here by Placído Domingo, who is not conducting the performance) with backstage footage of the opera's set changes and technicians at work. My favorite moment: watching a stage tech repair a crack in the 42-year old set with a roll of duct tape--something the audience would normally never see.

There are advantages to the HD cameras being this close. In the opening scene, the erotic connection that exists between Octavian and the Marschallin is readily apparent. (In fact, I felt more like a voyeur than an opera-goer!) Renee Fleming's tears, Susan Graham's eye movements and other fine details combine to make this most sentimental of operas come across in all of its glory. The close camera also takes minor characters (the major-domo, the monkey-seller, even the police chief in Act III) are seen in rich detail and bring the viewer deeper into Strauss and Hofmannsthal's fantasy of 18th century Vienna.

Although the orchestra pit cameras have trouble panning across when the stage is really crowded (this is noticeable in the first and third act ensembles) the video crew does a pretty good job of conveying the overall picture of the theatrical goings-on. There are none of those obnoxious editing-room tricks that one associates with opera on video, like "burning" two singers on opposite sides of the stage into a tight frame, or worse yet, cutting away to the conductor toiling in the orchestra pit just as the onstage action gets interesting.

Briefly, the performances here were absolutely top-flight. Renee Fleming's portrayal of the Marschallin is the highlight of her career, the role she is best known for, and yet she always seems to find new emotional depths in this complex character. Here, the warmest moment was her brief flirtation with the Chief of Police in Act III, bringing the realization to the viewer that the officer in question is one of Octavian's predecessors in her bed(!)

Susan Graham (apparently fighting a cold) gave a memorable performance as Octavian, the opera's cross-dressing hero. Christine Schäfer brought her considerable experience and understanding of 20th century song to present a strong-minded, fully developed Sophie. Kristinn Sigmundson was a droll Ochs in the "leering pig" school of the character. Finally, the vereran baritone Thomas Allen was a fine, comic Faninal. Edo de Waart brought his long experience of this opera to the orchestra pit, leading a performance worthy of preservation.

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