A week ago I wrote about my first experience with Opera is ON, the streaming video service of the San Francisco Opera that presents a video of a past production over the course of the weekend. The opera on that occasion was Richard Strauss’ “Salome;" and the video direction by Frank Zamacona made it clear that skilled camera-work could capture details that might be missed from even the best seat in the War Memorial Opera House. Sadly, this weekend’s offering was more disappointing.
Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux and Ellie Dehn as Manon Lescaut (courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
The opera was Jules Massenet’s Manon, which was performed in November of 2017. The staging by Vincent Boussard presented abstraction, rather than realism; and it was probably more memorable than Massenet’s score, even when both vocal and instrumental performers were clearly up to snuff. However, where the video work, again by Zamacona, was concerned, Boussard’s staging tended to make use of the entire space, not only as a visual setting but also as a locus for multiple levels of activities by the characters of the narrative.
Zamacona was thus faced with the problem of having to show either too much or too little, and neither alternative made for particularly satisfying video viewing. Add to that a strong preference for low lighting in many of the scenes; and it was clear that this was a production for sitting in the Opera House, rather than sitting in front of a small screen. One could, of course, fall back on closing one’s eyes and simply enjoying the music; and the conducting by Patrick Fournillier could certainly hold up to such listening. Nevertheless, while Massenet could be a master of orchestral sonorities, he was not always up to the same standard when it came to vocal demands, whether the issue was thematic material or appropriately expressive delivery.
Sometimes, it really is the case that “you had to be there!”