Film Ventriloquizes Itself Into Opera

by danielgoode

From: Daniel Goode
Date: January 3, 2014 12:39:54 PM EST
To: Jennie Punter
Subject: Film ventriloquizes itself into opera

Today’s epic films with ear-flattening immersive soundtracks (like Lord of the Rings with its odious prize-winning score by Howard Shore) practically force its music into the voices of its characters, giving us the impression of opera, while replacing that medium with the newer, more flexible, more accessible, cheaper medium of film. No one is the wiser, except the poor opera company, opera composer, and their donors and subsidizers. Film has stolen their show.

But opera has not completely slept through this development: The Metropolitan Opera has filmed many of its productions in HD, and now, worldwide wherever there are movie theaters, you can once again hear and see opera at reasonable prices. Still, film is the master medium, live theater, the loser.

I’ve seen two HD filmed operas this season, both wonderful experiences: Shostakovich’s The Nose, and Verdi’s Falstaff. William Kentridge’s visual and directorial masterpiece of the former was one of the most fabulous theatrical things I’ve seen in years. And Falstaff, while not an avant-garde production, was entrancing. Verdi’s last opera is his own quick-cut version of his earlier lyric style. So easy and fresh sounding, you wonder how he does it. Magic!

I have one dark suspicion, however, about this whole HD enterprise. I think that in the final mix, the orchestra is mixed lower in volume than you would hear it in the opera house. Shostakovich’s spiky, acerbic dissonances within his stripped-down modernist orchestration weren’t as present as I would have liked. The camera’s close-ups seduce us into concentrating on the visual—and for the singers: they are more exposed as actors. There is so much to see. Yet I strained my ears during the famous fugue finale in Falstaff, trying hear if it was a “real” fugue or just fugue-like. Not that it matters. But the orchestra as equal is a treasure I refuse to give up. So, reformers of opera if you are still out there, there isl plenty to do.

Thumbnail review.

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