Today, by Popular Demand, I am adding a new category “Opera”, and this is my first installment into that category. I review the Met’s “Live in HD matinee” version (which I saw yesterday) of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. And also a general all-round praising of The Met and their project to bring culture to the masses. First, for many decades, via Radio, and now also by Live HD transmission into movie theaters. This year is in fact their 10th Anniversary of this “Live in HD” project. One cannot praise them too much for this; so please keep in mind that they are not paying me to advertise for them; nobody is; as I mentioned before, I have a good job which pays me well, therefore I don’t need to shill for anyone. This is purely voluntary, because the Met deserves a shout-out!
Live in HD
So, anyhow, yesterday, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, along with an opera-loving friend (who also loves popcorn), we were able to sit in an IMAX movie theater in this sleepy backwater town somewhere in the good old USA, in the Northeastern corridor (hint: approximately halfway between New York and Boston), relax with cupholders and popcorn, and watch a splendiferous LIVE matinee (yes, LIVE! – so, if one of the divas were to trip on her ball gown and fall flat on her face, we would see it happen in real time) being streamed into theaters all over the country (and, in fact, some theaters around the rest of the world, from what I understand), with High Definition sound and picture.
Now, like the “Live in HD” host always mentions (yesterday’s host being the lovely diva Susan Graham), this is not the same experience as actually being in the opera house. The acoustics are going to be slightly different, for starters, and most likely not as good. And the ambience maybe not as refined. But there are advantages too: Like I mentioned, you can eat popcorn. Even more importantly, these transmissions come with robotic-controlled movie cameras positioned on the stage. The technical directors can cut from one camera to another, just like making a film, except in real time. As opposed to sitting in a faraway seat and squinting at the distant stage, here you get movie-type close-ups of the action. You can see the singers sweating. You can see their facial expressions, and enjoy a more direct blast of the emotions. Along with the subtitles, which translate the libretto line by line, you get a complete experience of the composer’s work.
Plus! The Live in HD transmissions include many other lovely bennies, for example, we get backstage interviews with the cast and crew; and during the intermissions we get to watch the stagehands building and taking down the sets.
This Production of Il Trovatore a Huge Success
For background and so I don’t have to repeat a lot of the details about who sung what, here is a review of the season premiere of “Il Trovatore”, from Friday night.
Yesterday’s matinee audience (in both theater and movie theater) likewise venerated Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. They started applauding him the moment he walked onto the stage, before he had even opened his mouth to sing a note. Everybody likes an underdog, and everybody is rooting for Hvorostovsky in his battle against this brain tumor. This being Live in HD, we were able to see Hvorostovsky’s face in close-up. The applause softened him; and he snuck in a little involuntary grin and nod to the audience; before composing himself and resuming his stern Count di Luna face.
Hvorostovsky went on to deliver a powerful performance as the villain, whose crimes include sexual harrassment (of the heroine), racism (against gypsies), not to mention arbitrary executions. At one point in the show, after willfully ordering the execution without trial of Manrico and the burning at the stake of Azucena, Count di Luna muses to himself: “Perhaps I am abusing the power which the Prince has bestowed on me.” Somebody in the back of the movie theater called out: “You think??”
Yesterday’s other Russian star, Diva Anna Netrebko, was also in amazing voice. She portrayed a physically strong, tomboyish Leonora. This season is her first Leonora. Up until this season, Anna wasn’t even ready for it. Leonora is a very difficult role to sing, and requires a mature voice. The close-ups showed an Anna who was very focused on her breathing, and determined to deliver every note flawlessly. As the opera progressed, you could see her almost relaxing, thinking, “I’ve got this.” Like Hvorostovsky, Anna was applauded when she first entered the stage. From Russophile POV, it is nice to see Russian stars being respected, without the shenanigans of last season. Where we had the spectacle of diaspora Ukrainians leaping onto the stage (trying to ruin Netrebko’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Iolanta”) and unfurling a Ukrainian flag, etc. To which spectacle, we saw the “hero” of the opera, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała (who also happens to be a friend of Anna’s), shaking his head ruefully and wagging his finger at the disrupters.
Fortunately, none of that malarkey this season … yet!
Di quella pira
The hero of the opera “Manrico” (aka “Garcia di Luna”) is probably the hardest-working man in all of opera. He vies with Wagner’s Kundry for “Most Jobs Held”, or perhaps “Most Valuable Employee”. Raised in the gypsy camp by his foster mom, Azucena, Manrico somehow teaches himself to play the lute, and becomes a famous Troubador. He also enjoys physical prowess. In fact, it is at the “athletic games” where he meets Leonora, as she is handing out the laurels, on behalf of the Princess. Manrico and Leonora fall in love instantly; Manrico finds out where she lives; and starts to serenade her in her castle. WHILST SIMULTANEOUSLY fighting a civil war, as one of the leading military commanders of the other side.
This difficult role was handled aptly by young Korean tenor, Yonghoon Lee. All eyes were on him, as he stepped up to the plate to deliver the famous cabaletta “Di Quella Pira” (“From those flames”), which to Trovatore is like “To be or not to be” in Hamlet. Lee chose a good strategy: Instead of trying to compete with the likes of past greats such as Pavarotti or Domingo, he delivered a quick but flawless “Pira”, filled with emotional rage.
The Wrath of the Gypsy
To me, the most outstanding performance of the matinee was delivered by mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick. Last season we saw her as the witch Ježibaba (linguistically cognate to Russian “Baba Yaga”) in Dvořák’s “Rusalka”. Zajick is a woman who doesn’t mind making herself ugly, if that’s what it takes to channel her powerful voice. She was simply amazing as Azucena. This role demands an almost impossible complexity of conflicting emotions.
How does one even begin to portray a woman who dearly loves her adopted son (Manrico), and yet allows him to die, because the Gypsy Code demands vengeance over love? Hoary and corny as it by now, one still gets chills down one’s spine in the final moment of this melodramatic soap-opera, when Azucena points her finger at Count di Luna and informs him with a frightfully vengeful laugh: “You just killed your own brother!”
During the backstage interviews, Zajick was also the funniest and most interesting personality. She said she has been singing Azucena for 25 years, and it took her that long, to finally understand the intricate plot of the story. She joked that there is a tavern in this place in Italy, where the owner has offered a vintage bottle of wine to the first person who can successfully relate the plot. Zajick said she believes that she is finally ready to try for that bottle of wine!