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Metropolitan Opera at home in Baltimore (on screen)

Last night's performance at the Lyric Movie Palace, I mean Lyric Opera House, was notable on several fronts. The theater has been effectively refitted to accommodate simulcasts via satellite from the Metropolitan Opera. The Met's high-def broadcasts, introduced a couple seasons back, have been an extraordinary hit at cinemas across this country and in several others. Locally, they've been available previously at cineplexes in Abingdon and Columbia. Now, downtown Baltimore has been added to the mix, thanks to Baltimore Opera, which spearheaded the needed additions to the Lyric's technical equipment. With a nice, big screen, the place really looked like an old-fashioned movie house last night; popcorn was even for sale in the lobby. Several hundred turned out and, other than a couple of noisy talkers near me (why are they always, always near me, no matter the theater or the occasion?), everyone seemed quite taken with the whole experience. I found the picture quality of the transmisison excellent, the sound decent, if a little boxy. (The sound quality might have been a result of this particular simulcast, not the newly upgraded sound system. One problem definitely was on the Met's end; it took a while to jump-star the subtitles. Their appearance after about 20 minutes into the broadcast prompted applause from the Lyric audience.)

The Met's HD series, previously limited to Saturday matinees, was expanded this season to include opening night, a gala revolving around soprano Renee Fleming. It was the first time a soprano had been given ...  

such a distinction for the Met's season-launcher. Fleming was featured in three chunks from three separate operas, affording her an opportunity to show off not only her musical versatility, but the costumes created for her by three big-league fashion designers -- Christian Lacroix (Act 2 of La traviata), Karl Lagerfeld (Act 3 of Manon) and John Galliano (final scene of Capriccio). Those designers and those gowns got a few too many plugs during the pre-performance on-air features. For that matter, all of those features could have used a firmer directorial hand. Mezzo Susan Graham was a bubbly host, interviewing various A- and B-list celebs, but there are only so many "fabulous," "amazing" and "fantastic" adjectives that one can stand. Deborah Voigt looked, well, fabulous, amazing and fantatsic, standing in Times Square to cover the outdoor simulcast there, but her segments couldn't disguise their time-killing purpose.

But, hey, this was Fleming's night, and she seemed determined to make the most of it. I bailed out after three hours, before Capriccio, pleading fatigue and hunger, but I'm sure she soared in that scene, too. In the Traviata excerpt, she dug deep into Violetta's character to reveal the mix of consuming joy and creeping consumption; every gesture and glance could be appreciated in the vivid, close-up filming. Her voice sounded a little husky, but had expressive power throughout. Ramon Vargas was a vocally elegant Alfredo. Thomas Hampson completed the starry casting as Germont. He pushed his baritone hard at times, but his singing was alive with communicative nuance. James Levine, looking robust after his recent cancer operation, conducted with his usual authority. Marco Armiliato took over the podium for the Manon act, which found Fleming delivering a sturdy, colorful account of the Gavotte and then, in Scene 2, really driving it home for the duet with an equally impassioned Vargas.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer my opera live and in person. Still, the Met's HD revolution has undeniable appeal, and it's fun to see people get fully into the proceedings, breaking into applause when the Met's audience does. At the Lyric, even some of the things only seen by simulcast viewers generated clapping, like the appearance of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for an intermisson chat with Graham. I thing the many backstage things that are shown, the scene-changes and the like, are especially engaging.

One goal of these simulcasts is to bring in new audiences for opera. That may still take some selling -- last night's crowd was heavy on regular, older-age patrons (a common occurence elsewhere, from what I've read) -- but the potential is certainly there.    

PHOTOS: Top, Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in dress rehearsal of 'La traviata'; also, Renee Fleming in dress rehearsal of 'Manon' (AP/Metropolitan Opera)             

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