Popcorn and Der Rosenkavalier

I had been wanting to see one of the Met’s new HD-in-theaters productions, but not quite enough to trek half-way to Chicago to the nearest theater that carried them. Recently, though, one of our local movie theaters began carrying the live HD productions, and our new music director, Edo de Waart, was asked to do the Met’s Rosenkavalier in place of the ailing James Levine. As I had never seen Rosenkavalier, and in fact had never played any more than the suite,  it seemed a good production to catch. It was.

My main take-away from the afternoon (and it was a whole Saturday afternoon; 12 PM to 4:30 PM or so) was that the orchestra played astonishingly well. No doubt it helped to be conducted by someone of Edo’s experience, familiarity with Strauss, technical competence, and near-Puritanical refusal to wallow. But I can’t imagine that there’s an orchestra in the world that could play this score better than the Met orchestra did, and only one or two, on a good day, that could do as well.

That’s not to say that the singing was any less impressive. Obviously the leads were wonderful, and the ability of all concerned to maintain the requisite concentration required for nearly 5 hours was awe-inspiring to someone who finds the Bruckner Eighth to be a long evening. But what really struck me was how uniformly good the singing was. There are a lot of voices in Rosenkavalier; every single one in this production sounded to me to be of the highest possible calibre.

The visual aspects of the production were not quite on the same level. Expectations in a movie theater are inevitably high as regards the look of what’s on screen. Hollywood has spent the better part of a century perfecting the art and craft of delivering a polished visual experience. The Met hasn’t; at least not where film theaters are concerned. Aggravating this is the fact that the Met’s production is 40 years old, and at least in HD looks its age. Lighting was an issue; not that the singers weren’t properly lit, but the sets looked pretty dark and dingy – far dingier than I suspect they looked in person. Lighting for television (which, of course, is what this is) is very, very different than lighting for stage. Maybe it’s just not possible to do both well at the same time.

And clearly the limitations on where the cameras could be put a real crimp in the style of the broadcast director in terms of camera angles and cut-aways. Again, it wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t what would would expect to see in a movie theater (or even on a TV screen). There were a few technical issues with the cameras as well; one or two bobbling cameras, and what I suspected were a few blown cut-aways that didn’t happen, perhaps because the go-to camera wasn’t ready. No doubt the camera crews didn’t have the same chance to live with the opera that everyone else did; a technical rehearsal or two is no substitute for doing performance after performance.

On the other hand, the glimpses backstage during the intermissions were both charming and educational, and more than made up for the fact that Placido Domingo, while undoubtedly a great artist, is a lousy interviewer. I’m really glad, though, that he made a point of saying that there’s nothing like live opera and that we should all attend our local companies. I hope the couple behind me heard that; I heard them saying that perhaps they should come to these Met broadcasts more often and our local company less.

The biggest problem with the production on the big screen was the acting. It’s inevitable that what works for a 3,500 seat room is not going to work as well in tight close-up. And some of it worked a lot better than I would have expected. But opera singers are not, as a rule, great actors, and most opera directors don’t seem much help to their singers in this regard (and WTF else do they do for their money, I wonder?) I suspect that very few operas get the kind of stage direction that they really deserve. It’s also true, of course, that patrons don’t go to the opera for the acting.

I came home and re-watched some of the Ingmar Bergman film of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, which is still my gold standard for what opera on film can achieve. The contrast between the perfect scale and ease of the acting that Bergman coaxed from a bunch of Swedish singers and what one invariably sees at live opera, and what I saw on Saturday,  couldn’t be greater. Go look at this clip, or this one, and you’ll see what I mean. And, of course, what Bergman was able to do with lighting and camera angles on a sound stage simply blows away what is practical when filming a live performance of an opera.

But, even with those problems, it was a wonderful experience. It’s not like being there; in fact I had to keep reminding myself that it was a live performance (although the audience in the theater did applaud when Edo took his bow). But the seats were very comfortable, there was lots of legroom, and it was lovely to watch a live performance of this calibre while eating popcorn and Milk Duds.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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