The snobbery and sweaty brows of watching opera in the cinema

The pros and cons of the New York Met’s latest live opera relay, Massenet’s Werther

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

Met Opera Live: Werther
Die Frau ohne Schatten

Royal Opera House

I remain puzzled that, so far as I know, no daily or weekly paper carries reviews of the New York Met opera relays (I’m not a denizen of the blogosphere, where they may well swarm). To judge from the number of cinemas that show these live relays, and from how crowded most of them are, clearly more people see opera in this form than in any other. And many of those people will be experiencing opera live for the first time in cinemas, and may well never go to an opera house. I suspect there is a strong element of snobbery involved on the part of non-reviewers, as if one hasn’t really been to a performance unless one was actually in the theatre where it was taking place. Opera buffs tend to be eager to hear, ‘in the flesh’, whether a particular singer’s voice is getting stronger or weaker, what the balance is like between the singers and the orchestra, and so on, and certainly those things need attendance at the theatre. But those people are more interested in the performance of an opera than in the work itself, while most people, whether in the theatre where it’s happening or a cinema, are more interested in the work being performed, since they are unlikely to see and hear it more than a few times in the course of their lives.

Now that I’m nearing the end of my fourth season of Met relays, I find that there are more pros and cons attached to them than I originally suspected. My overall feeling about them is still extremely positive, but I do have an unease, so far resisting lucid expression, about the relationship between the stars in a performance and the characters in the opera. I think it is seeing Jonas Kaufmann in various roles that has led to my wondering why I am less moved by his performances now than when I had seen him only at the Royal Opera and in concert halls in Edinburgh, where, in the first few years of this century, he appeared in so many song recitals and non-staged operas.

He is now, of course, a megastar, and though there is every reason to think that he is a wholly serious, dedicated artist, who conscientiously submits to endless intermission interviews and the other trappings of stardom, I find that each time I see him now, in the Met relays, I am more conscious of him than of the character he is portraying.

The peak of his identification with a role was Siegmund in Die Walküre in 2011, one of the noblest experiences I have ever had. His appearance a week ago in Massenet’s Werther was an altogether different kind of thing. That opera is for me mainly a tiresome work, with agonisingly protracted scene-setting and an excruciatingly prolonged death scene. In any case, why should we care for this self-pitying wimp, who is an obvious loser from the moment he appears? Massenet’s music does nothing to provide him with vertebrae, so whoever takes the title role is bound to seem to be using it as a vehicle for his assorted talents. Kaufmann has all the talents and to spare, yet what I couldn’t help thinking was that we were being treated to a virtuoso display of cultivated singing and acting, and that, I am sure unintentionally, Kaufmann became far more the object of interest than Werther did.

I then began to wonder about all the close-ups we’re treated to in the cinema (and the inevitable DVD that follows): on the one hand we see the expressions on a character’s face, as you do only in the first few rows of an opera house, but also the sweat on the singer’s forehead, the preparation for an exquisitely positioned pianissimo high note, and so forth. Of course in all the performance arts there is an incipient strain between the work and those who are presenting it, but the treat we get in seeing a familiar work in close-up exacerbates that strain. But these are provisional musings.

The production of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera has been universally hymned, not least in these pages. I only want to tell anyone who attended the production and was enormously impressed by the musical and scenic aspects of it, but remained totally baffled by how anyone could bear, let alone admire or adore, the work itself: you are not alone. All agree that it is Strauss’s most pretentious work. All should agree that Strauss is tolerable in inverse proportion to his pretensions. The unintelligible symbolism of Hofmannsthal’s libretto is sidestepped by director Claus Guth by turning it all into a dream — or, this being Die Frau ohne Schatten, a nightmare. So we’re let off the hook of working out what it all comes to, and can concentrate on the music, some of it wonderfully refined and genuinely creative, more of it unbearably noisy and bombastic. Fortunately, it is so expensive to mount that it will remain a rarity. The mere thought of any of Wagner’s mature operas reduces Frau to a pile of rubble.

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