“Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” expands from six to eight opera transmissions: Roméo et Juliette (December 15), featuring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón; Hansel and Gretel (January 1); Macbeth (January 12); Manon Lescaut (February 16), starring Karita Mattila and Marcello Giordani and conducted by James Levine; Peter Grimes (March 15); Tristan und Isolde (March 22), featuring Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner and conducted by Levine; La Bohème (April 5), starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas; and La Fille du Régiment (April 26).All well and good, except for the sneaking suspicion that with every major production eventually being theater- and telecast, principal casting for them will soon -- if it is not already -- be more dependent on how singers appear in transmitted close-ups than how they, well, sing.
As Sieglinde rightly notes, Peter Gelb has consistently invoked "theatrical" values to justify his production and casting innovations. What of these developments?
At first glance, the moviecasts would appear to be a de-theatricalized version of the art. With viewers isolated from performers in a sterile theater where one munches away on popcorn, there seems to be no room for the audience-performer charge that makes the theatrical experience. (Among the audience itself there is a dynamic, yes, but that's different -- and much less powerful. For some quantification, simply compare the urge to applaud, yell, and scream live versus at a movie.) Theater is not, as cinema, about the appearance of reality but the appearance of the real. There is no substitute for actual, sensed human proximity.
But actually seeing a broadcast was still a surprise. Because of the emphasis on close-ups and two-shots, it turns out that these Met moviecasts actually de-theatricalize not only the operagoing experience but the operas themselves. Characters rarely -- and only briefly -- appear in the context of the stage, as individuals before the stage population (chorus, extras, character parts, etc.) who, from Greek days, represent the audience in the action. The action seems to be experienced from inside the skin of each character -- successively, as the camera jumps around, as if in some dreamlike series of self-transformations. The characters' relation to each other and the whole -- always clear in theater -- is far out of reach.
Of course this helps certain performers while handicapping others. Renee Fleming, for example, performs in this dreamy, undramatic trance anyway, but in the house it's a liability. On the big screen, her Tatyana's muddy physical relation to the stage and world is invisible, and her comfort in performing in close-up (or with one partner) doubles her success. Similarly, I can believe reports of Anna Netrebko's inadequate Elvira being magnetic onscreen. That touch of narcissism that makes her act more snake-charmer than theater is perfect for the camera. (And perhaps both of these ladies have been so raised on the close-up culture that they don't realize that opera isn't cinema?)
But this, then, is the problem: the advent of these moviecasts favors not just looks over voice (more on this anon), but anti-theatrical performers over theatrical ones. So far this still means people who have become famous in live performance (though one could argue about Netrebko), but it may not always be so. Theatricality? Fat people aren't the problem -- non-theatrical presentations are.
That said, the Onegin performance was terrific, despite the stray leaf on Ramon Vargas' head; whether it bodes ill or no, Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky did remarkably well with cinema-scale touches in their scenes (though the perfection of Vargas' physical assumption was, unfortunately, one of the things veiled by the paucity of long-shots). As a document, these things are valuable -- I'd buy a Blu-Ray version if such existed. It is their effect on the Met's core business that is the worry.