The Metropolitan Opera Goes to the Movies

Not all the operatic action is going on in downtown’s Civic Theatre these days. Thanks to someone’s deep pockets, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera is offering occasional live “high definition” television transmissions of selected Saturday matinee performances in three San Diego cineplexes. So far we have had an abbreviated, English language version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (beamed here live on December 29); Bellini’s I Puritani, starring the ravishing beauty Anna Netrebko as Elvira (Jan. 6): and the world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, with Plácido Domingo in the title role (Jan. 13).

Well, it’s not really like “being there” – but it comes close. The theater I have been attending is the Mission Valley 20 at 1640 Camino del Rio North. Two others complexes are the Regal UA Horton Plaza 14 (CA 92101) and the Regal Mira Mesa Stadium (10733 Westview Parkway, CA 92126).

If audience members would kindly simply NOT buy and eat popcorn during the broadcasts, the Mission Valley opera experience would certainly be more than satisfactory. The seats are not uncomfortable, the sight lines are good (meaning there should be no reason for a head in front of you to block the subtitles), and the sound system is superb. The allegedly “high definition” image, however, is really stretched to the pixel-breaking point by the time it has been projected on a large screen. On a new hi-def TV screen, it would certainly pass muster – but it is far less impressive when magnified to such an extent.

Arriving at the Mission Valley theater so early in the morning is an odd experience.

The multiplex itself is not fully in business yet and the outside box offices are closed. On one recent morning (I Puritani), people queued up waiting for the doors to open – and when they did, the ticket takers seemed less than sure of what they were doing. Those would-be patrons wishing for last-minute admission were simply told that everything was sold out – although I have yet to see all the seats taken at any performance. If you arrive with only a computer printout prepaid reservation (as I did for I Puritani), you might be told to enter some information into an automatic machine inconspicuously perched against a wall. This machine short-changed me one ticket on a purchase of five tickets! So look out!

Seats are unreserved: hence all people the queuing up and rushing to find a good seat location.

So far the transmissions have been largely without technical glitches. The theater management, however, still seems to be in the decision making process about exactly when to lower and raise the lights during intermissions.

Regrettably, the fabulous and beautiful Ms. Netrebko was not an ideal Elvira in Puritani, although this particular fan of hers hates to say so. On the whole, it was NOT a great Puritani, I fear – but I enjoyed it thoroughly. What a joy to go to the Met and hear wonderful music for only $18.

I am saving my comments on the Tan Dun for a rainy day here at Opera West, but I offer a few thoughts on The Magic Flute below.

So far we’ve had —

Bellini’s I Puritani
ELVIRA WALTON — Anna Netrebko
RICCARDO FORTH — Franco Vassallo
ENRICHETTA — Maria Zifchak
GUALTIERO WALTON — Valerian Ruminski
Conductor — Patrick Summers
Production — Sandro Sequi
Set Designer — Ming Cho Lee
Costume Designer — Peter J. Hall
Stage Director — Sharon Thomas


Tan Dun’s The First Emperor
PRINCESS YUEYANG — Elizabeth Futral
SHAMAN — Michelle DeYoung
EMPEROR QIN — Plácido Domingo
GAO JIANLI — Paul Groves
MOTHER OF YUEYANG — Susanne Mentzer
GENERAL WANG — Hao Jiang Tian
GUARD – Danrell Williams

Conductor -Tan Dun
Production – Zhang Yimou
Set Designer – Fan Yue
Costume Designer – Emi Wada
Lighting Designer — Duane Schuler
Co-Director – Wang Chaoge
Choreographer – Dou Dou Huang
Co-produced with Los Angeles Opera

Less is Taymor: Great Performances. The Magic Flute. KPBS TV, 01/25/07

Some great works of art seem doomed to be kiddy fodder: Jonathan Swift’s excoriating satire, Gulliver’s Travels; Tchaikovsky’s lavish E.T.A. Hoffman fantasy ballet, The Nutcracker; and (without further ado), Mozart’s Singspiel, The Magic Flute, an elaborate Masonic allegory, not to mention something of an inside joke — but last and least a play for children.

Having seen The Magic Flute as a child, I recall finding it incomprehensible and boring (which I now discover is also the reaction of many adults), but as I finally put aside my childish ways, the opera’s serious bits seemed so grand and uplifting that I was almost able to overlook Papageno’s irritatingly clownish antics.

Many decades have passed since I first saw that Flute (on NBC television, actually, sometime during the ‘50s), and during that time I have rarely missed any of the major “must-see” Flutes including the Marc Chagall and David Hockney productions, both designed for the Met and now superseded presumably forever by The Magic Taymor Show. This seems a good name for it since this The Magic Flute says absolutely nothing about Mozart, although it definitely delivers a credit card’s worth of Broadway scenic wizardry to those folks who have already taken their kids to The Lion King.

Taymor is a brilliant and often inspired designer of puppet shows that aspire to the heights of grand opera. Her treatment of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex for Seiji Ozawa (1993) was thrillingly effective, and, not incidentally, made extensive use of bird puppets and actors with elongated fingers and wearing white masks atop their heads – notable features of the Met’s current Flute. Her work with Flute stage designer George Tsypin on the recent Los Angeles Opera world premiere production of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel was so good that it is utterly impossible to imagine Grendel in any Taymor-less context.

On the other hand, her mucking about with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (also LA Opera) seemed to suffer from restless leg syndrome. Both ship and opera were sabotaged by all the stage business.

Taymor has directed one of my personal favorite films, a quirky version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that most people seem to hate. Her Frida (a biopic of the painter Frida Kahlo) is not bad, and, of course, everybody but me adores that damned The Lion King. Twenty minutes of that and I was out of the New Amsterdam and looking for a drink somewhere in Times Square.

Although a TV broadcast with its edited images offers a poor substitute for “being there,” especially where the Met’s stage is concerned, one can tell a good deal from last night’s video-graphed Flute broadcast (one presumably derived from the highly touted theatrical transmissions of December 29).

First, many of the costumes are hideous – especially the one for Pamina (soprano Ying Wang) which makes her look like one of those little sexless wooden Russian dolls. Her princely boyfriend, Tamino (tenor Matthew Polenzani), sports considerably flashier duds, although their strong suggestion of traditional kabuki garb is reinforced by the white-face makeup. The costumes effectively dehumanize the two characters Mozart intended to represent the normal human universe. These two characters are the earthly gravitational center of the drama. The rest of the world may be fantastic and out-of-whack, but Pamina and Tamino should be human beings. Of course, they are the chosen ones – the upper crust, so to speak — and if they cannot look sexy and desirable, they should at least have a modicum of allure. Here – nada! They’re just two more puppets.

Although Sarastro (Rene Pape) is the leader of a weird sun-cult, Mozart has him sing like a god. He is the true divine light shining over everything. God is made in Man’s image (or the other way around, if you wish), and it seems to me that the best costuming for both this character and his followers would be sober, more along the lines of traditional monastic dress. These beings are expressions of man’s highest ideals. Taymor’s faux Oriental glitz robs this cult of its dignity (so eloquently expressed in the music). We see the weirdness and only a debased theatrical version of the sublime.

Nothing, of course, can rob Papageno of his dignity – and except for the wicker codpiece teasingly placed over singer Nathan Gunn’s crotch, Taymor outfits the birdman somewhat traditionally. Mozart intended Papageno to represent the Common Man: Papageno’s music is relentlessly German country bumpkin stuff. Meanwhile, the classier Tamino and Pamina sing refined Italianate German opera. The Common Man enjoys sex, pretty women, eating and drinking; ergo he only overcomes his beastly nature with much difficulty. Hence the feathers on Papageno. Not for him the world of higher politics and spiritual awareness. That world is the rightful inheritance of Tamino and Pamina once they have been tested by Sarastro.

For political incorrectness, the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) is only exceeded by Monostatos (representing a racist concept of “the lower races” – and blessedly turned to a grotesque fat bat-man by Taymor). Empty-headed female monster that she is, the Star Flaming Queen sings flashy Italian opera arias, often nothing but vowels. Taymor’s many-winged outfit for this character is especially effective in the Queen’s initial entrance, but the red concoction in the final act seems wrong. She’s the Queen of the Night. The red is more Whore of Babylon.

The three ladies get the worst of it: they are essentially floating faces. Is this the way to treat three horny “real” women who sing at length about how they’d like to get Papageno – alone, please!

Oh, there are many, many truly lovely images, while others are oh-so-cute. In the long run, every aspect of Taymor’s Flute is so spectacular that it leaves no room for Mozart, even as conducted by James Levine. Few people have remarked, incidentally, how unexceptional the vocal performances really are as a whole – although Gunn and Pape are certainly top-flight. As an audio-only show, this would not be one to keep on your iPod.

As for the J.D.McClatchy English translation and the cuts that are intended to grab the attention span of the younger crowd – well, the translation is often cloying and the cuts are so few that they simply do annoying harm to the work without appreciably shortening things. It all comes out to about two hours (and despite what I had been told, the overture is not played through completely in the opening credit section).

By David Gregson, copyright 2007

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