Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wine, Women & Song

My experience with opera transmitted live on a movie screen has been excellent if until now, a bit limited. For reasons not worth going into, I've seen the Met's HD transmissions on Saturday afternoons three times--for the first three operas of Wagner's Ring. Since they show upcoming performances--their version of Coming Attractions trailers--I feel like I've seen a whole lot of operas this way but actually it's only been the first three Ring operas. In case you wondered, we'll get Goetterdaemerung this spring.

But yesterday I saw and heard nothing less than opening night at La Scala at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring.  It was Don Giovanni and it was easily the best production, at least the most enjoyable one, of that opera I've experienced. First of all, the cast was glorious: Peter Mattei was the Don, Anna Netrebko Donna Anna, Barbara Frittoli Donna Elvira, and Bryn Terfel as Leporello. Everyone else was just as good and Daniel Barenboim was the stellar conductor.

Half the fun, of course, was watching all the high-fashion Milanese crowd in black ties and long gowns--even a white tie or two. The new President of Italy was standing in what looked like the royal box. Any European operatic production worth its salt will push the envelope in terms of new and different staging: this one was no exception. Characters come out into the front of the orchestra and run back past the first row up onto the stage. The style was sort of modern dress, with the inevitable capes and cloaks and finery that could put you right back into the original production of the opera in the 1790s.

The performances were so good that you actually could focus on points like Donna Elvira's seeming endless loyalty to the Don, no matter how badly he treated her; whether the ending as played made sense--the Commendatore appearing more in person than as statue and reciprocating the Don's stab of the opening scene; Anna Netrebko's amazing resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, especially when Donna Anna affects large movie-star-style sunglasses; and all the stage tricks that director Robert Carson conjured up for us.

As with their Figaro, Mozart and da Ponte did not shrink from controversial subjects. The Don has to get his just deserts in 1930s Production Code Hollywood style, and I assume this was as de rigeur back when they opened this opera "out of town" (Vienna being both the imperial and musical capital) in Prague. Whether there was more meaning in having the Don materialize in the final scene--the one following his direct descent into Hell--when the characters all proclaim their noble intentions: Elvira will go to a convent, Leporello promises to find a better master--is hard to say.

But this production was continually both fascinating and challenging, and musically superb. It's part of the Opera in Cinema series--a series of opera and ballet productions from Europe that hasn't gotten anything like the publicity the Met's Saturday series has had. It deserves more--even if most of us would have trouble getting to a noon performance (apparently the opening night at Scala starts at what seems like an early hour of 6 P.M. for Europeans) on a Wednesday.

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