Culture Vulture: The Met in New York or The Met in HD?
I’ve been ruined by the Met at the Mall. Despite the worn-out, industrial carpeting and the popcorn and the lack of glamor, there are great advantages in seeing opera at the movies these days with state-of-the-art technology, especially the sound.
By Helen Epstein.
After spending most of the last opera season at the Burlington Mall watching the Met in HD, it was an unusual experience coming back to the source, The Metropolitan Opera in New York. There is nothing like the rush of walking onto the Lincoln Center Plaza from Broadway at night, the fountain spraying light, the Chagall murals back-lit, the crowds of people who these days include the well-dressed, the partially-dressed, the tourists, the “who cares if this is an opera house, I like my sneakers” set. There is also nothing like the moment when those crystal clusters of lighting fixtures are pulled up towards the ceiling, signaling the start of the overture. And yet . . .
And yet, I found myself missing the Mall. Why? Well, first of all, Manhattan has been having bedbug problems and to prevent the infestation from contaminating the opera house—a reasonable concern—the seats and floor had been scrubbed down with insecticide (at least that’s what the ladies room attendant told me at intermission). No one let me know, so during the first act of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, I found myself sniffing my neighbors and every piece of my clothing I could decently reach, imagining I had inadvertently dipped myself in Ajax or Comet.
My olfactory distraction was abetted by the curious fact that even though I had an enviable press seat in mid-orchestra, the singers seemed far more muted than they did at the AMC movie theater in Massachusetts. I missed the close-ups of singers and musicians. I missed seeing the conductor’s face. I found myself thoroughly confused by Bartlett Sher’s production, some aspects of which allude to Kafka’s Central Europe and others to Fellini’s Rome. My eyes have gotten accustomed to being led from frame to frame by an artful, photographic director.
Probably most distracting were the subtitles that appeared in small print on a sliver of screen on the seat in front of me, so that my eyes kept darting back and forth from the stage. The Met at the Mall has accustomed me to seeing every word that is sung at the bottom of the large screen on which the action unfolds.
It didn’t help that the singers—an international group—seemed subdued (except for the excellent and spunky Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc). Most massacred the French in which Offenbach wrote Hoffmann’s tales of unrequited or misfired love. “Les levres”—the lips—became “la Levre” (I think).
My companions, who sat far up in the balcony and later tested my orchestra seat, claimed that the singers sounded better up there, but that, unlike in my seat, the orchestra sounded muted in the higher reaches of the house.
For me, no technology can replace that extraordinary sound of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra live. From my seat, it was as glorious as it has been for the duration of James Levine’s tenure. Patrick Fournillier had the pleasure of conducting this extraordinary group of musicians for this Hoffmann.
I’ve been ruined by the Met at the Mall. Despite the worn-out, industrial carpeting and the popcorn and the lack of glamor, there are great advantages in seeing opera at the movies these days with state-of-the-art technology, especially the sound. And, of course, the prices can’t be beat.
Helen Epstein is the author of Music Talks and other books.