The late Donizetti masterpiece, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) is a rarity indeed, even in Europe. Four years after the first performance, l’assedio was not performed again until 1990. One hundred and eighty-one years after its premiere in 1836, this Glimmerglass production marked the American premiere. During its composition, Donizetti had struggled with it and bent operatic conventions to seek performances in Paris. Ultimately, the opera was a tactical failure and Donizetti wound up with two versions, with an unequal number of acts. In preparation for this production, Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri worked on a new performing edition that tightened loose ends and yielded a satisfactory, if not compelling, conclusion. Some ballet music was lost in the cuts, but dance (to curry favor with French opera goers) would be an awkward addition to the nobility and gravity of the plot. In the Zambello/Colaneri conclusion, the final exculpation of six sacrificial hostages was emotionally and musically heartrending.
Permit me to indulge in a one-sided argument…or a rant, as I believe it’s called in the blogging world—which is not ours at New York Arts and The Berkshire Review!
Opera in the United States is particularly unsettled at the moment, if not in trouble. Both audiences and sources of funding are on a downward curve, although the better-managed companies seem to be coping. The biggest beast of all, The Metropolitan Opera, compromised by the bad judgement of its General Director, Peter Gelb, is the most worrisome of all.
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?
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.