Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Carmen: in HD

I got an overdue dose of culture this weekend. I went to the opera at the Met. It was my first -- a new production of Carmen directed by Richard Eyre that's been all over the New York Times arts section of late. But I'm still in West Virginia, you're thinking. How did I manage to see a New York opera?

Well, although it was a live performance, I wasn't actually at the Lincoln Center but in a cinema in the little town of Barboursville that broadcast an HD version.

I've always wanted to go to an opera. I like the old glamour of the idea and even tried to see one in the Teatro Colón when I lived in Buenos Aires. But the opera house, which has some of the world's best acoustics, was closed for renovations that year. (Actually I just looked it up, and it's still closed -- it will reopen after a four-year hiatus later this year.)

This movie-theater opera had its appeal. Yes, it lacked the world class people watching and cultured atmosphere I'd expect at the actual venue, and I missed out on an excuse to wear a (faux) fur coat over a luxe outfit. (This full house theater was of the gray-haired, sweats-wearing variety.) But the views were better than a front-row seat at the opera, with the camera crew artfully panning and zooming for maximum dramatic affect and focusing in on the key singers when appropriate.

So for $22 I saw the brass buttons on the soldiers' military coats, the star mezzo soprano's false lashes, and set details like the handwritten postcards on a military camp wall. We probably saw much more than those in the front row Center Parterre who paid up to $370 for their seats, no opera glasses required. When the camera focused on the orchestra pit we could even see the sweat drops on young conductor's forehead.

And in the theater we could eat snacks (smuggled Starbucks in my case) while watching the three-hour performance. During the 30-minute intermission we got to see interviews with the leads, the Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna who played Don Jose and the curly-haired Elina Garanca, who on stage was pure feist and sex but backstage wore a huge grin and rattled away into the microphone in Latvian.

Both of them were well into their 40s, unlike most big Hollywood productions. I suppose it takes years to rise to the level of international opera star. I felt aware of my own superficiality when I couldn't get over how Barbara Frittoli looked about 50 but was playing the young, goody-two shoes Micaëla. I noticed her matronly chest rather than simply appreciating her world class voice and expressive face.

Ultimately, Carmen is intended to shock. The story is rife with sexual tension that culminates in violent tragedy. And this edition was indeed intense -- all cleavage and passion. Bizet's French opera (accompanied by English subtitles) is set in Seville, Spain. (That immediately sold me because last year I spent some time in that Andalusian city, which is a sunny place full of Spanish stereotypes like bullrings, voluptuous dark haired women, and flamenco dancing.) The gypsy Carmen, a fiery and volatile heart breaker, seduces Don Jose, a lowly soldier betrothed to his childhood sweetheart Micaëla. She convinces him to desert and join the gypies for a smuggling operation in the mountains, then ends up leaving him for a celebrity bullfighter. This particular production was dance heavy for an opera, with fierce numbers by an athletic ballerina couple opening each act.

I came across a newspaper article reporting that 240,000 people in 37 countries saw the live telecast. And now you know that record-setting number included a few art-hungry West Virginians.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera/ Dusan Reljin 


  1. You cover a lot of familiar territory in your entries! I lived and worked in West Virginia for ten years before I ended up in Charleston, SC.

  2. Carmen is one of those stories that in most cases you have to mentally be prepared for. In a way, unlike any other Bizet Opera this particular one demands that you identify with the main characters on stage, only to find your heart broken at the end. If you find good vocals for the music, you even end up reliving the drama in your head for days to come. but you are right about the HD vs in person seating. Most of us who are lucky enough to go to Lincoln do not get closer view, but the vocals, I don't know if I would trade them for HD. Anyways, if you get a chance, listen to Gheorghiu as Carmen (that is if she does not end up retiring from the role in the nearby future)...she is amazing

  3. Reine D'Afrique: Sounds like you know your opera! One day I'll make it to a performance in the Lincoln Center, but I love the idea of art for the masses!

    Joan Perry: Love your pictures! I recognize your picture from Charlie's lovely White Haired Warriors feature ;)


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