Sunday, December 20, 2009

Les Contes d'Hoffman (Opera at the Cinema)

I have a new favourite (non-Wagner) opera.

Contes d'Hoffman is comical, light hearted and deep.

I think a lot of the power of this production is in the direction. A lot of the muse's malign influence is suggested by her acting and movements on stage, and very little (or possibly none) by the words.

Perhaps she can be read as an entirely positive force. If she usually is, and if the opera loses some of its meaning if she is, then that might explain how I've managed to remain ignorant of its existence for nearly twenty years.

But the music is wonderful. When you spend the rest of the evening suppressing the urge to whistle you know that things have gone well.

I've not previously been impressed with the 'Live Opera at the Cinema' idea. I think it ruined a perfectly good Tristan and Isolde, and after a very fine Tosca a few weeks ago I was left thinking "That would have been wonderful. I wish I'd been there."

But this one worked fine.

Granted it's not the same as being in the opera house. There's a certain feeling of having been present at a performance missing, and the music sounds subtly wrong. The difference between a really good recording played on a really good amplifier and the real thing. Intangible, but there.

However, there are compensations.

The sound quality is even throughout the cinema, and all perfectly in balance, so the voices are always clear.

The camerawork (I think particularly skilled in this one) gives you a feeling of being actually on the stage, involved in the action. I've never had that in the Coliseum, or in fact in any large theatre. But you do sometimes get it in a small theatre in-the-round. And in a film. And sometimes watching rugby on a giant TV in a pub. And you get it here. And it's great.

So now I wonder why it hasn't worked for me before.

And  I can think of a few possible reasons, some of which I'm ashamed of:

The first is that this opera is just bloody good, and its cast are faultless. All wonderful, without exception. Each character a treasure to remember. The staging, costumes and direction inspired.

Another may be that the Met is getting the hang of filming opera. Presumably it's all fairly new to them, and it's taking a while to get the technique sorted out.

A third may be that this one was in French. My French isn't brilliant, and I'd have been lost without the subtitles. But with them to crib from in moments of difficulty I could understand fairly well. I don't think I'd have been able to for a real performance, since I sometimes had difficulty understanding opera in English at the Coliseum. But the clarity of the cinema sound makes it much easier.

Being able to understand the words as sung makes a big difference. This is the first one of these I've seen in French.

And the fourth reason, and the one that worries and shames me, and that I hope is the least important, is this:

Every actor and actress without exception in this production looked the part. All the young women characters were played by beautiful young women. And all of them sang easily, without looking short of breath or showing apparent effort.
And they could all act as well as sing, with their faces as well as their gestures.

That makes absolutely no difference in a real opera house, since they're a long way away, and a certain suspension of disbelief can make a paunchy fifty year old into the young superhero Siegfried, or a mountainous middle aged lady desperately sucking air into the ageless Valkyrie.

But it makes a huge difference if they're on display, thirty foot tall and only twenty feet away, with the camera taking close-ups of their faces.

And this production was self-consciously sexy. Underdressed chorus-girls. The ambiguous muse as Dietrich. I don't think it would have worked in the cinema if the characters had been more in the traditional operatic mold.

Besides making me feel rather trivial, this worries me. If these streamed operas become a significant source of revenue, are we going to see opera lose its focus on beautiful singing?

Might it mean that an actual visit to an opera house might be less magical in future, because the singers have been picked for the cameras?

Are good singers going to be confined to recordings, denied the opportunity to sing live, because they don't look the part?

A dreadful prospect. I worry. I am ashamed.

(And I have fallen for Kate Lindsey.)

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