Live in HD? Donizetti’s Anna Bolena from the Met in Pixels

The audience poured out of the auditorium, through the lobby, and out into the parking lots with such a happy general purring that it seemed villainous to criticize the brave new entertainment Peter Gelb has brought the world. For almost five years now we have been able to watch High Definition video projections of performances at the Metropolitan Opera in movie theaters and auditoriums like the one at the Clark Art Institute, which I had just vacated. HD Live, as it’s called, has become a hit in most places, I hear—certainly in Great Barrington and Williamstown, where I’ve seen them, mingling with a dense, enthusiastic, mostly mature crowd. It’s often harder to get a ticket to one of these projections than it is to get a seat at Met itself.

What could be more commendable than creating a show that provides so much enjoyment? It brings opera to a vast global audience at reasonable prices, and at various times in the past half-century many have feared opera was in danger of dying out altogether, either from the expense of production and operation or the sheer irrelevance of its elitist origins. The Met opera broadcasts, which began in the early 1930s, changed many lives and, in synergy with the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Opera News, helped raise significant sums of money for the Met during the Great Depression, when the house desperately needed funds and people needed cheap entertainment. Are the times not similar today? The broadcasts only created more opera-lovers, and what possible harm could they do? (Actually I know of one example, but I’ll leave that for another time.) Wouldn’t the HD transmissions, with their spectacular images and vivid sound bring even more good into the world?

Stephen Hough. Photo Stephen Wise.

The Multifaceted Piano Sonata: Stephen Hough’s Recital of Sonatas

Stephen Hough says that he chose this program to be one of strange sonatas, which is altogether fitting for Liszt’s 200th birthday. The program, consisting entirely of sonatas — no préludes, études or the like (not counting the three encore pieces) — might theoretically have been stranger with, say, one of Pierre Boulez’s sonatas, but Hough seems to have been after a more subtle variety of strangeness. A sense of mystery and a very personal quality, very expressive of the internal world marry these pieces under Hough’s playing. The honesty and faithfulness to the Truth in his playing brought the music close to poetry. Though making music and poems are not the same or even parallel activities, the word ‘sonata’ shares an etymology with ‘sonnet’, the stem son- having to do with sound, and, as Stephen Hough points out in the program note, a sonata is sounded rather than sung, the piano having to make do on its own without words. Hough also pointed out in his short speech in-between the Beethoven and his own piece (usually I’d be against spiels in amongst the music, but Hough is a very good public speaker, thoughtful an interesting, with the voice of a 1930’s radio presenter), that Liszt, whose birthday fell on the very day of this recital, invented the concept and the word ‘recital’ as a sort of pure recitation of music of a single musician. Thus, though sounded and not sung there is the similar expectation in the audience, the similar solitude of the performer as in a poetry recitation, far from a mere reading, but an honest expression of the sonata as if it were naturally being created then and there, as Hough says ‘as if the notes were still wet on the page.’ Mozart wrote something similar once, that the height of piano playing is to play as if you had composed the music yourself.

After Bomarzo…

Just as the last major events of the spring season approached, including the final performances of Otto Schenk’s production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen at the Met, I realized that if I did not travel to Italy for an important family visit—no, it was not a junket to cover the grand opening of Angels and Demons—I would not be able to do it for months. I felt much better when I found that two extraordinary people were available to take my place: Rebecca Kim, a brilliant recent Ph.D. from Columbia, who wrote her dissertation on John Cage, had just completed one of the Met’s Ring Cycles and was willing to take my seat for a second traversal, and Roza Tulyaganova, who has delighted audiences with her Fiordiligi in Così and her Countess in Figaro, and is equally well-prepared to analyze performances through her work as a candidate for a doctorate in musical arts at Stony Brook.

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