Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Opera

I went to the opera yesterday, a Simulcast from the Met in New York of Jules Massenet’s Werther. This was a lovely birthday gift from my buddy P and his wife. We were accompanied by a young couple who had never witnessed an opera, and were apparently taken by it. For me, the experience was fascinating because the last opera I saw was some 20 years ago, a dreadful production of Carmen Jones, which left me persuaded that opera was indeed--and deserved to be--dead.
Not so with Werther, a truly lush production with gorgeous yet simple backdrops. The plot is simple. Werther, a depressive poet with a penchant for self-destruction, falls in love with Charlotte, a young woman who is engaged to Albert, a soldier. Over a time span of almost three hours, Werther declares his undying devotion to Charlotte maybe a dozen times, threatens suicide, disappears, reappears, and finally shoots himself in the chest with a pistol. He is obviously a very poor shot as he misses his own heart and lingers painfully as Charlotte looks on, and begs God to save what she comes to recognize as the love of her life. She presses on the gunshot wound, though I am not sure if it is to hasten Werther’s demise or staunch the flow of his theatrically red blood. At any rate, almost the entirety of the fourth act is devoted to the poet’s death throes during which he falls to the ground, struggles to stand, falls again, is assisted to his feet by Charlotte, falls a third time, crawls about a bit, and finally expires.
As this was occurring, a spectator in a nearby row (a woman, I think), sobbed and sniffled helplessly, and at the climactic moment, the sound went out. This opera was being broadcast live to an audience in the hundreds of thousands in some 600 venues worldwide, each and every one of which went quiet during the grand finale. 
The cast was lead by two of the greatest voices performing today, French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, and German tenor Jonas Kauffman, both born in 1969. They made the work effortlessly their own and were rewarded by standing ovations and shredded programs tossed in the air by the admiring crowd.  I am told this, opera-wise, is the ultimate compliment an audience can pay performers.
Attending a Simulcast of this type is both mesmerizing and somewhat challenging. The audience is old, 70s and above, and heaven help a spectator who has to absent himself once the aficionados are seated. They do not like to move. Sidling towards the aisle is a twinkle-toes exercise in avoiding size 13 brogans firmly planted and resolutely obstructive. I tripped twice and narrowly avoided sprawling on several ancient laps.
You can eat popcorn during the show. Pizza is also available, as are hot dogs and for all I know pastrami sandwiches. I dropped and spilled my bag of popcorn when I was halfway done but luckily had a secret stash of Sour Patch Kids candy.   
Opera, I decided, is an art form where insane characters lurch around the stage in despair over everyday situations. I heard at least one spectator tell Werther to get over it, sh*t happens. One might even be tempted to suggest Werther and Charlotte do the deed and be done with it. No one will find out as they’re all singing Christmas carols or crooning odes to Bacchus.  
Lastly, in opera, where the music is gorgeous and moving, the words are often at best banal. A section devoted to the effervescent beauty of nature and happy innocence of small children was lovely, even as the actual phrases and wording used bordered on the trite. I was also struck by the fact that Massenet wrote Werther in French, yet the work was largely incomprehensible to a French speaker (me). I had to rely on the subtitles.
Simulcasting may very well be opera’s savior as live productions are staggeringly costly, which of course is reflected in ticket prices for live shows. Simulcast allows opera fans to
view the spectacles without going bankrupt themselves.  This is good. My grandfather wrote operas and I never got to attend one. Who knows, with the miracle of Simulcast, maybe one day I’ll be able to eat popcorn and watch one.  

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