Randy Kaplan Hits Opera’s High Notes [Fierce Anticipation]

In the film Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen’s character (Allan) is trying to get over his ex wife. Allan’s friend Linda (Diane Keaton) manages to arrange a blind date for him. Giddily anticipating the night with all its pleasures and possibilities, Allan chortles with excitement, “Ooh, I really have mixed feelings about this!” That’s exactly how I felt when I first perused this year’s Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast lineup. The pleasures and possibilities of early 18th century to late 20th century fare, from Handel to Glass with Mozart, Gounod and Wagner in between are enough to fill any opera fan with both anticipation and dread. Fiercely Anticipating, Kinda Wanna See, Wouldn’t Go If You Paid Me. Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. But which is which? Opera for me is anything but Hegelian. The elusive Gesamtkunstwerk, that perfectly synthesized (yet elusive) all-embracing art form that opera strives to be, is more Janusian in nature to me. The Roman god Janus is often represented by a two-headed man, eyes gazing in opposite directions. He is the god of transitions in time and of beginnings and endings, of doors and gates. And like an electron exhibiting both wave and particle traits, able to be in two different places at once. Opera fans are forced to hold not just like and dislike but adoration and disgust in our hearts simultaneously. I’ve seen many of the operas on offer here before. What follows is my excitement, worry, concern, fierce anticipation, lukewarm skepticism, dread… general anticipatory ambivalence about the upcoming productions.

The four part, 19-hour opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, of which Siegfried is the third part, is one of the highest artistic achievements of mankind, rivaled perhaps only by Ricky Gervais’s The Office or Mitchell and Webb’s Peep Show. The Ring is audacious and contains seemingly infinite musical and philosophical ideas. The Met’s new Robert Lepage production has been highly lauded. I saw Das Rheingold (the first part of the tetralogy) last year in an HD Broadcast. Hey, it’s almost worth sitting through the six-hour Siegfried just to see how they’ll do the scene where the hero returns home with a bear from the forest, a bear that promptly chases and taunts his foster father. There have been broad comedy bears, metaphorical bears, naturalistic bears, and even real bears. What kind of bear will Robert Lepage give us? And what kind of Wotan? A Grizzly Adams Wotan, a Barnacle Bill Wotan, maybe a Greg Allman Wotan? Will Siegfried’s hammering as he attempts to reforge the sword Nothung match the orchestra’s or will there be terrible timing gaffes? How will they stage the scene where Siegfried kills the Giant turned Dragon, Fafner? Naturalistically? Or, as the Kirov Opera did it in 2007, unforgivably? (There were gigantic papier-maché statues skewed around the stage, which were repositioned for different parts of the opera. When Siegfried killed Fafner he went around sticking Nothung into what appeared to be each giant statue’s ass as if he’d fashioned the magical sword into a jumbo rectal thermometer.) The Met’s classic, if old-fashioned, Otto Schenk production was pined for by all after the belabored Russian cycle.

Attending a Met HD Live (or encore) Broadcast gives you a view of the stage that would cost you an arm and a leg in the actual opera house. For many productions it’s not that important. But for Philip Glass’s opera about the life of Gandhi it is huge. The vocal text of Satyagraha is based on the Bhagavad Gita. Constance DeJong adapted it for the opera along with Philip Glass himself. The Phelim McDermott production with video design by Fifty Nine Productions (Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer) is a visual spectacle. When I saw Satyagraha live at the Met in 2008 I had box seats. I thought that would impress my Nerve.com date. But we missed half the stage and the scenery. I kept leaning way over the rail, trying to get an eyeful of the giant puppets and projections, attempting to read the translations of the Sanskrit aphorisms. Well, from any seat at the LA Live movie theater downtown I’ll be able to see it all. Satyagraha was made for the big screen. So, if you think you’ll be able to handle four plus hours of arpeggiated trance-inducing minimalism, I’ll see you there.

I saw Handel’s Rodelinda over half a decade ago at The Met. Renée Fleming will reprise the eponymous role this month. She is always stunning, visually and aurally. But the curiosity here are the two male soprano roles, once taken on by castrati, men whose testicles were surgically removed before they hit puberty to enable them to keep their soprano voices. There are only a couple of extant recordings of actual castrati but the rage these days is the countertenor. The countertenor is a masculine looking man who stalks the stage belting out wildly powerful arias in the soprano register. And he is a man who still has his balls. There are two countertenors in Rodelinda. This is must-see, must-hear stuff. But if you think current pop music insipidly repetitive, wait until you get a load of Handel’s score from 1719. Those de capo arias can make you want to scream but at least they give you something to latch on to. The sets in this production are incredible. They slide from side to side, revealing the next scene. And when it comes time for us to join Bertarido in a dungeon, the entire stage rises to expose the cell. If the actor/singers are less melodramatic in their gestures than their mid-aught counterparts we’ll be in good shape. I can only hope that some of the more glaring directing gaffes have been corrected. I remember Grimoaldo aiming his pistol at Rodelinda’s son and holding it there for several minutes after Rodelinda gambits her son’s life. The boy looked about as relaxed as if he were sitting on his front porch sipping a lemonade. Why would Rodelinda bring her son before Grimoaldo to make that proposal in the first place? And given that she did, why wasn’t the boy afraid? Obviously, the gambit should be made out of earshot of her son and her son should never know what’s going on. His mother would never let him know. Rodelinda is another 4 hour commitment. But remember, they had no TV and film back then. It was a great pleasure to be in the opera house for four to six hours. What was waiting for them at home anyway? A candlelit and poorly insulated room? Cholera?

The new Des McAnuff production of Gounod’s Faust has to be a vast improvement on the last Met Faust I saw: Andrei Serban’s mawkishly gag-inducing production. And it wasn’t easy to make it bad. He had Woody Allen’s Set Designer Santo Loquasto on his team and the great and dignified René Pape singing the role of Mephistopheles. Roberto Alagna sang Faust. The subject matter is, of course, highly stimulating – wheeling and dealing with the Devil. But, overall, I hate this opera and don’t really want to see it again. I would if you paid me I suppose. The music is kind of good. The first scene takes place in Faust’s laboratory. The costumes and production here are a measuring stick of a director’s sensibilities. What did Andrei Serban serve up last time? Crap. He made René Pape parade around in a non-sensical progression of cliché-ridden outfits. And when Faust changes from an old man to a young one why not have the transformation take place before our eyes? The only thing they could think of was having Alagna walk behind a door and come out of the other end, after being blocked from our view for 15 seconds? Ridiculous and insulting. Have him tear the beard from his face in clumps and let’s see some acting, some posture change, something, anything. Roberto Alagna looked like Martin Short spoofing the role. The dancers were certainly good to look at through opera glasses. Oh, that’s another advantage of the HD Broadcasts. No binoculars or opera glasses necessary. Act III of Faust is ridiculous. The music is cloying and endless and, in most productions, things don’t make too much sense from then on out. I once read the unabridged libretto; it seems that many directors cut all the important expository dialogue and keep all the mawkish music. Why?

The crown jewel of the repertoire, as far as I’m concerned, is the Mozart/Da Ponte masterwork Don Giovanni. I saw it live in HD last week and this is a great, if traditional, production by Michael Grandage. It’s a bit dark and monotonous visually but, overall, it’s dignified and grand. In the current HD Broadcast Renée Fleming is the hostess, interviewing the singers as they come off the stage between acts. This feels a bit odd, much like the relatively recent tradition of baseball managers and even players being interviewed in the dugout during games. But it is nevertheless interesting to follow the stars and divas backstage and to witness that other, usually unseen and inaccessible, world. Critics are making much of Mariusz Kwiecien’s depiction of DG. But Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello is even more impressive. I can’t wait to see him take his inevitable stab at the role some day. Joshua Bloom is a great Masetto and Stefan Kocán an imposing Commendatore. The acting here is all around first class, except for a few things. Someone’s got to get the graveyard scene right one of these decades. Don Giovanni is messing with his manservant and someone has got to play it that way. Either that or distracted to the point that DG’s dialogue makes sense. The Don Giovanni live Broadcast already happened but don’t worry – they’ll play it again, Sam. And you can see that encore presentation on Wednesday, November 16. I like Regal Cinema’s L.A. Live near the Staples Center which is much less crowded and uptight than Century City’s AMC 14. There are several other theater’s in L.A. offering the broadcasts too.

Peruse the entire Met Opera HD Broadcast season online here.

Here are the operas showing live (Saturday mornings) and in encore (Wednesday evenings at 6:30 local time) for the rest of the calendar year:

Wagner’s Siegfried – encore TBD
Mozart’s Don Giovanni – encore 11/16
Glass’s Satyagraha – 11/19 9:55 a.m. – encore 12/7
Handel’s Rodelinda – 12/3 9:30 a.m. – encore 1/4/12
Gounod’s Faust – 12/10 9:55 a.m. – encore 1/11/12

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Images courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera