The Met's second movie matinee: quite the show

Music Column

January 09, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Playing at a multiplex more or less near you: monarchs, scoundrels, illicit lovers and the occasional fighter. And every one of them is singing.

Welcome to opera in the 21st century, which you can now enjoy while munching from vats of buttered popcorn and slurping oversized soft drinks.

For 75 years, the Metropolitan Opera has extended its reach with live radio broadcasts of Saturday-afternoon performances. Late last month, the company went a giant step further by introducing high-definition, surround-sound satellite simulcasts of select matinees to movie houses throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and, by delayed transmission, Japan.

For $18 a ticket, rather than $375 for top seats at the Met's house at Lincoln Center, you can get up close with opera in a way that even the most advanced home-theater system would have trouble matching. So far, it looks as if lots of folks are embracing the opportunity.

The Met reports that the inaugural simulcast of Mozart's The Magic Flute (in a new, abridged, 100-minute version of the work) filled 91 percent of about 14,500 seats available in 60 movie theaters in this country on Dec. 30. There were reports of sellouts at all seven theaters showing the opera in the United Kingdom and 75 percent of capacity at 28 theaters in Canada. In all, about 30,000 people caught that initial showing.

Judging by attendance Saturday afternoon at the UA Snowden Square Stadium 14 in Columbia, the second transmission - Bellini's I Puritani - did very well, too; there were few empty seats. That theater, along with several others, is meeting demand with a rebroadcast of The Magic Flute (taped, not live) on Jan. 23.

Remaining operas in the series: Tan Dun's The First Emperor this Saturday, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin Feb. 24, Rossini's The Barber of Seville March 24 and Puccini's Il Trittico April 28. (In addition to the Columbia theater, showings are scheduled at Regal Bel Air Cinema Stadium in Abingdon.)

The mostly mature-age crowd in Columbia was in an appreciative mood, applauding Met general manager Peter Gelb when, a little past 1:30, he introduced himself onscreen to welcome the satellite audience. (Gelb is the man who has been transforming the company into quite the busy newsmaker this season, from an opening-night simulcast in the middle of Times Square to Web streaming of performances.)

The next 3 1/2 hours were filled with some terrific bel canto singing, especially by soprano star Anna Netrebko as Elvira; hit-and-miss intermission featurettes; and funny comments in the broadcast booth from the venerable Beverly Sills, a sensational Elvira herself back in the day.

As for the high-def element, that wasn't overwhelming. I suspect the predominantly dark lighting of this particular staging hindered things, although it was still a vivid visual experience. It was even more vivid aurally - the clarity and richness of the sound proved consistently impressive.

The mostly fluid camerawork was enlivened by occasional shots from the wings, allowing you to see practically over the singers' shoulders into the pit and beyond to the house. Some backstage footage was also cool - Netrebko coming offstage after Act 1 giving a thumb's-up sign and doing a victory jig to her dressing room; choristers taking their places before the rise of the next curtain.

Netrebko looked so ravishing and phrased so communicatively that a few pinched top notes hardly mattered. The sight of her singing part of Elvira's mad scene on her back, her head nearly hanging over the edge of the stage, was a highlight. She was also a great sport backstage, being interviewed clumsily by stellar soprano Renee Fleming ("Tell us how you feel").

As Arturo, tenor Eric Cutler ducked the high F in the last scene but otherwise did admirable work. Same for the rest of the cast, not to mention chorus and orchestra, all conducted with exceptional sensitivity by Patrick Summers. The tired stage direction of Sharon Thomas matched the tired, 30-year-old sets.

I don't think anything can really replace the experience of opera in an opera house, but these Met movie matinees may well be the next best thing.

Marin Alsop in Philly

Right after Marin Alsop finishes a rehearsal today with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and 61 members of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra for this week's mammoth dose of Strauss and Stravinsky, the BSO's music director-designate will head to Philadelphia for the last of four performances with that city's famed symphonic ensemble.

If you can get up there, too, you should find her Philadelphia Orchestra concert worth the trip. (Call 215-893-1999 for tickets.)

The program is trademark Alsop - Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (she led the BSO in this music a few years ago); Copland's Symphony No. 3; and the local premiere of John Harbison's 2005 Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra.

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