Saturday, March 15, 2008

Telecasting "Live" Performances of Music

Over the last 24 hours I have experienced two major telecasts of "live" musical performances. I just returned home from the Westfield Shopping Centre in downtown San Francisco (where shoppers are apparently lured by British spelling), where I saw the HDLive telecast of this afternoon's performance of Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera; and last night I finally got around to watching the DVR recording I made of the New York Philharmonic performance in North Korea. Let me begin with the one generalization that cuts across both of these broadcasts: The days of the expert skill in camera direction that was pioneered by Jordan Whitelaw (and cited in an earlier post) seems to be dead and gone; and we all are losers for that. This was more problematic for the Philharmonic, since, at the Met, if the camera controllers seemed at loose ends during the musical interludes, they at least provided an effective account of the drama up on stage. The Philharmonic camera work was, for the most part, a mish-mash of long, slow pans across the audience (most of whom showed no expression at all), almost-as-long periods dwelling on conductor Lorin Maazel, and attempts to "track" the principal performers in the orchestra, which inevitably looked in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is not to say that the Met telecast was free of problems. The most understandable problem is the opposition between close-ups that clarify the drama (and can be particularly valuable for a plot like that of Peter Grimes) and the almost bizarre image that such a close-up presents. I am far from the first to have noted this opposition, but this was the first time I experienced it directly. The good news was that this particular staging of Peter Grimes, by John Doyle, depends heavily on an abundance of broad views of the entire stage. The opera, after all, is not so much about Grimes himself as it is about his relationship with the borough where he lives. (The source text is The Borough, a cycle of poems by George Crabbe rather in the vein of Spoon River Anthology. Crabbe, incidentally, is one of the residents of this particular borough. He does not have a singing part; but Doyle has endowed him with a distinct personality, particularly in the third act which begins outside Auntie's "house of ill repute.") Because these broad views are so important, this opera is definitely well-served by HD technology.

At this point it is worth observing that Doyle's conception of this opera, particularly involving his work with set designer Scott Pask, has not been without controversy. We see this in the first four paragraphs of the review that Anthony Tommasini wrote for The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Opera’s landmark 1967 production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” directed by Tyrone Guthrie and mounted for the colossal tenor Jon Vickers, was bound to be a tough act to follow. But the time had come for a new roster of artists to take a fresh look at this work, among the true operatic masterpieces of the 20th century. So there were high expectations on Thursday night when the Met presented a new staging by the noted director John Doyle, in his company debut.

That the impact of Mr. Doyle’s production was not fully compelling is hard to explain, since many elements seemed so right, starting with the breakthrough portrayal of the title role by the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, an elegant singer and courageous actor long overdue for a starring role at the Met. In recent seasons he has sung Peter Grimes to acclaim in Santa Fe, N.M., and Paris and at the Glyndebourne Festival in England.

The entire cast was strong. The veteran conductor Donald Runnicles drew a richly colorful and impassioned account of the score from the orchestra. And in an opera in which the chorus — portraying the small-minded and easily threatened citizens of the Borough, a little fishing town on the east coast of England around 1830 — is essentially the other major character, the Met’s choristers excelled. Donald Polumbo, the chorus master, continues to do impressive work.

But one aspect of Mr. Doyle’s production was a problem: the set, by Scott Pask. It is dominated by a proscenium-filling wall that evokes the rough wooden buildings and sheds of an English fishing town, turned grayish-brown from salty air and sea mists. For long stretches of the opera the wall faces the audience, close to the edge of the stage. There are five levels of doors on this ominous wall, which pop open to reveal characters, allowing for some surreal staging touches.

Needless to say, it was impossible to ignore this set. Indeed, during the backstage interviews provided to fill intermission time, it was hard to miss how little of the entire stage was being used due to the design of the set. On the other hand one of those interviews was with Pask himself; and his explanation of wanting to convey just how confining and suffocating this borough was, particularly as experienced by Grimes himself, made all the sense in the world. My guess is that those who go to the Metropolitan Opera House regularly were taken aback by Pask's minimal approach to stage use and became more obsessed with biting his finger, rather than looking where he was pointing. From the receiving end of an HD camera, on the other hand, Pask's intentions were pretty obvious and effective. At the very least the Doyle-Pask collaboration made a hell of a lot more sense than Robert Carsen's staging last season of Eugene Onegin, where, for the waltz at the beginning of the second act, he had the entire cast dancing while crammed within a tight rectangle in the center of the large stage!

Aside from the staging question, I have little disagreement with Tommassini. I have seen this opera at the San Francisco Opera with Runnicles on the podium; and I really enjoy his understanding of the musical architecture of the three acts, particularly when it comes to the roles of five critical orchestral interludes (which are frequently performed in a concert setting and well deserve as many listenings as they can get). I should also point out that, once I got used to the large images of the close-up shots, I did not feel as if any of the roles suffered for that kind of camera work. Every performer was so "into" his/her character that the close-up shots did not "break the magic" by disclosing an actor trying to "be in character." The only real weakness was that Anthony Michaels-More came off as far too young for Balstrode, whose part only makes sense as one of those "old salts" who is now too old to deal with the vicissitudes of the sea and can only observe and comment. Since his final comment is critical to the resolution of the entire plot, it was a bit deflated by coming from a body that had not been sufficiently eroded by hard experiences.

Finally, according to the Met's Web site, there will be an "encore" screening of this video tomorrow in at least some of the participating movie theaters; so I would enthusiastically recommend that anyone reading this post today take advantage of the opportunity, if it presents itself.

Regarding the Philharmonic concert, I have already written about how The New York Times covered that event. The primary problem with the telecast was that there were too many distractions from the concert itself. Now, since I began by criticizing the camera work during the concert, this may sound a little bit like one of the jokes that Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall:

Two old ladies are eating at a resort in the Catskills. The first one says, "The food here is terrible."

The second replies, "Yes, and the portions are so small!"

However, something was clearly wrong with a recorded document that missed out on what Daniel J. Wakin felt was the most important event in the concert:

As the New York Philharmonic played the opening notes of “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song, a murmur rippled through the audience. Many of the staid spectators at this historic concert Tuesday night perched forward in their seats.

The piccolo sang a long, plaintive melody, cymbals crashed, harp runs flew up, the violins soared. And tears began forming in the eyes of the sober audience, row upon row of men in dark suits and women in colorful traditional dresses, all of them wearing pins of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding leader.

None of this profundity came across in the telecast.

If anything the telecast provided a different perspective on the whole idea that this was a propaganda event. When we were not watching the Philharmonic, we were watching a lot of "background footage" about North Korea; and this footage gave a lot of attention to those mass synchronized events, which have been pretty much all anyone ever gets to see of North Korea. However, these made for a major contrast with the Philharmonic performance. Maazel made it a point to keep his rhythms flexible in total opposition to the clockwork synchrony of those North Korean spectacles. It was hard to tell, though, if his approach to performance had any impact on the audience. The closest thing to an audience reaction that I saw was a few hints of smiles poking through during some of the more outrageous sounds that George Gershwin had summoned in "An American in Paris," almost a grudging recognition that Gershwin wanted his audience to have as much fun with this music as the orchestra was having.

Whatever the flaws may be, it is still good to know that we now have video documents of both of these events. The latter clearly has historic significance; and, for all I know, the CIA is pouring over all those audience shots even as I am typing this. The former, however, affirmed for me that the Met's experiment with reaching a larger audience through movie houses is definitely a move in the right direction. I have no idea what the impact has been on the numbers that the bean counters examine. I hope they are good. I tend not to follow the radio broadcasts because the timing is just not that good on the West Coast but also because those shows just don't seem to feel as good as they were back in the "old days" when they were supported by Texaco. Seeing, is another matter, though, particularly when I get to see faces that have become familiar as a result of the operas I can see here in San Francisco!

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