Well, finally I went to see one of those Metropolitan Opera live moviecasts — the live performances streamed to movie theaters. And yes, it was marvelous. The work was ll Trittico, which, as ever, I find slow going in Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, and divine in Gianni Schicchi. (Well, except for that climactic chord at the end of Suor Angelica — the soprano on high C, G in the bass, and D, F, and A in between. I’ve never looked at a score, but each time I hear it, I just love that chord. It’s a modern pop sound, decades before its time — and the pop notation, Dm7/G, makes a lot more sense than any classical chord symbols anyone might use for it.)
But you might not be reading this to see me gush about Puccini’s harmony. (Though really I ought to talk more about music here. And I love Puccini.) So here’s my future of classical music point. Yes, it’s terrific to see the Met in a movie theater. There’s the communal sense of a live performance. People applauded, just as they’d do in the opera house. And the opera looks larger than life, which is also what you’d want if you saw it live.
And yet I’ll cite two problems. First, some of the nuns in Suor Angelica — seen, unavoidably, in close-ups — had fancy manicures. Now, if you’re an opera fan, you might say, “So what?”
You’re thrilled to see the opera on a movie screen. You don’t care about anybody’s nails. (And who’s going to tell the singers that, just for this one performance, they have to unmanicure themselves, and then run out to the nail salon to get the manicures done again? Will the Met pay for that?)
But when I told someone not yet an opera initiate about the manicures, he just howled with laughter. And that’s just the point. To the extent that these moviecasts reach outside the standard opera audience, the nuns’ nails really do matter. Movie fans collect gaffes like that in movies. Sometimes they do it affectionately. But if they sense that the people making the movie aren’t wholly serious, they’ll get angry, or at least derisive. If the Met wants a mainstream audience for its theater showings (and maybe later for DVD releases), it has to take responsibility for every detail on the screen.
Which then brings me to the intermission conversation between Jack O’Brien, who directed the production, and James Levine, who conducted it. This, to put it plainly, was self-congratulatory crap. O’Brien says Levine is wonderful, Levine says O’Brien is wonderful, both say the operas and the singers are wonderful. This, from two smart guys, who could talk much more seriously if they wanted to. (Actually, they seemed like they could dish the production from top to bottom, which would have been priceless, not that we’ll ever see it happen.)
If this had been a bonus track on a movie DVD, my friend would once again be snorting, If, that is — since he’s a smart guy himself — he wasn’t offended at this insult to his intelligence. How can people get away with blather like this in classical music, with nobody saying a word against them, w hen anywhere in popular culture they’d get blasted? (Just for instance: The Onion –the satirical newspaper that, on its more serious pages, has some of the smartest pop-culture coverage anywhere — makes a cottage industry of finding dumb DVD commentary tracks.)
Why couldn’t Levine and O’Brien name the parts of the operas that don’t quite work? (I’d nominate the end of Il Tabarro, when the baritone draws his wife, the soprano, under his cloak, just he did when they were young lovers — except that this time the cloak hides the body of the tenor, the soprano’s lover, whom the baritone has just strangled. Especially in closeup — with poor Licitra doing his best to look like a google-eyed corpse — this could have been one of those EC horror comics from back in the ’50s, where gore was uncorked partly for laughs.)
Or they could have talked about the parts that were hard to stage. Or the parts that were easy. Or the parts that at first they interpreted differently. Then they could have told us how they resolved their differences. Or — since in another intermission feature we were told that this production had the most massive set ever seen at the Met — they could have told us how they got such a huge (and surely expensive) set approved, at a time when the Met has been running deficits.
Some people worry that classical music is going to be dumbed down. I worry that — at least as it’s normally presented — it doesn’t seem smart enough.