Met Opera HD broadcast of “Madama Butterfly”: a guest report

I didn’t make it to last week’s Metropolitan Opera HD video broadcast of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, but here is a report from the Virtual Farm Boy Special Correspondent in Washington, DC, who attended the rebroadcast of the performance on March 18th.

Made it to Friendship Hts., movie theater was almost full of people about 70. The production must be really gorgeous in person, but one really only gets a hint in the HD, partly because of their  obsession with having it look like TV – about one shot in six lets you see anything except the fine details of the upper torsos of the cast – and partly because it’s VERY stagey and at the same time the effects are rather understated and would depend on the immediacy of sitting right under them. There were lots of light-and-shadow effects that were supposed to be accentuated by a huge mirror flown upstage. But even on the infrequent occasion when there was a shot wide enough to include it, it didn’t really read for the cameras. It’s a theatre effect.

On the bright side, there was also a fair amount of not-very-convincing Japanese style dancing (crowds mostly) that got passed over. Unfortunately, it was in favor of close shots of the diva’s white facepowder and scary hair.

This one was the worst so far for being just too damned close to the singers, and it made it really strain any willing suspension of disbelief. Let’s face it, Patricia Racette is a wonderful singer, but photographed from 10″ away and with about 8 lbs of white powder on her face, it’s about as hard to imagine her being really desireable as it is to picture Marcello Giordani as a hot young stud.  And watching people sing  that close up isn’t attractive.  There’s a realy silly moment (directorial faux pas really) when she runs downstage (which is really DOWN, the stage is steeply raked)  into his arms and he lifts her up over his head. With Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez this might be visually OK, even charming. Patricia Racette is a bigish girl, and she’s wearing the mother of all enormous kimonos. She looks like a side-by-side refrigerator in slippers coming toward him.  So when we’re supposed to be thinking, “Ahh, young love,” what’s going through my mind is, “Geeze, the rehearsals for THAT must have been painful.” As he’s putting her down she sings, “Oh, you’re so strong!”  I couldn’t help a guffaw. Together they had all the sex appeal of the average AARP ad, I thought. Seeing them in what’s about the most explicitly sexy scene until people started actually doing it on stage a few years later, all I could think of was that description of Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald: “the Iron Butterfly and the Singing Capon.” And that was just made worse by being so close to them.  Oddly, she looked a lot prettier, and a lot more Japanese, in the terrible lighting backstage, chewing the fat with Renata Flambé. Giordani looked like what he seems to be, a stick puppet with a big voice.

Speaking of puppets, they were  cool, although again the TV production made it  annoying. There are three puppeteers for each of them, dressed in black, and with their faces veiled in black. Loud and clear message:”They should disappear.” But the camera was SO close that we got treated to the full drama of their hammy facial expressions right through the veils. Part of the motivation of using the puppet was supposed to have been for the singers not to have to “cope” with the mute child performer, for which read, “Children always upstage adults.” In this case the puppeteeers were a huge distraction, I thought, simply because there wasn’t the dramatic distance that the production was conceived to have, waaaay more distracting than a cute 4 year-old. And on stage, I’m sure it was fine.

I guess this all bugs me because I used to be a threatre person, so I already know what it looks like up close, there’s isn’t any fascination about it, and I want to see the pretty picture, not feel like “an insider.”  I read the reviews about these things and people just wax rhapsodic about how cool all the behind-the-scene stuff is. It all just sets my teeth on edge.  La Fleming was yakking away with Anthony Minghella’s widow before I could even get my nose blown at the end of the Humming Chorus. It was a fine interview (much better than sweating singers talking about singing <yawn>) but all that sportscast pacing  is just weird.

And LOUD? I want to tell you. Almost painfully so at moments. But that’s the theater’s fault, not the Met. I think the one in Valley View when we saw Boheme had the best sound of any of these I’ve been to.

Dwayne Croft was fabulous as Sharpless (although there again, he’s an opera singer who acts a little and that’s a bit stiff and ungainly up close) and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki was the best thing on the stage, except for the dancer PInkerton in the little ballet  at the entr’acte of Act 3, who was H-O-T.

Ms. Flambé (can’t they get her to soften her voice a little and not over enunciate every single consonant?  She sounds like Eleanor the Eloqutionist!) did a rundown of the HD brodcasts for next year: nine, including Aida, Hoffmann, Turandot, AND Rosenkavalier. And Carrrrrrrrrmen.   Lulu passed over again. Sorry.

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