Opera at the Mall

Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall allows you to stream live performances of that famed orchestra into the proverbial comfort of your own home. A year’s subscription runs about $175, certainly a lot cheaper than seeing those same concerts in the hall itself.

Beyond the savings of money and time, the truly revolutionary nature of the Berlin broadcast can be seen in its oxymoronic title, which boasts of making the public experience of concert going into a private act. Instead of traipsing to the concert hall and navigating all those knees and ankles to arrive safely at your seat, you can recline at home in the comfy chair, swill and snack the remnants of the fridge, and disport yourself however you please. Still, it’s the excitement of the live that the orchestra’s promotional materials trumpet, not the potential for interactive stay-at-home fun like donning the white-tie and tails, pulling out your baton and supplanting Sir Simon Rattle at your own private podium. Or what about playing nude timpani in front of warming fire crackling away in the hearth?

The Berlin Philharmonic launched its Digital Concert Hall in 2008. Two years earlier the Metropolitan Opera had pioneered the transmission of big-time cultural events with its Live in HD simulcasts that sent out select Saturday afternoon performances not to living rooms but to movie theatres. Ticket prices vary by location, but usually cost about twenty dollars. The festival seating in the movie theatre is egalitarian rather than laid out according to the strict hierarchies of the opera house, from the boxes to standing room. The cost of the full Met Live season amounts to not much more than the Berlin subscription. Yet the experiences each offers are fundamentally different.

The smattering of multiplex applause that greets the Met curtain calls is a sign that the residue of public concert comportment clings to these simulcasts. The results of my clandestine surveillance at last Saturday’s double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle revealed that this clapping comes mostly from the older members of an audience already advanced in years. Turning from my position near the front of the nearly sold-out theatre at the Ithaca Mall in order to survey the sea of white hair in the semi-dark, I could see that the few pairs of moving hands belonged to the most senior among us.

If the theatre—in whatever form—is often about escape, then simulcast clapping is not so much a reflex of concert etiquette as it is a manifestation of the desire to be somewhere else. The mall-bound clapper is not just registering her enthusiasm for the performance but trying instead to animate the illusion that she is herself in the opera house.

Entertaining that illusion at an American mall is an exercise in the absurd. At the Met simulcast the host—this last weekend it was the celebrated Met mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who is far better on stage than she is holding a microphone and interviewing the musicians behind the scenes—will thank the far-flung members of the digital audience for coming, then urge them to bring a friend next time. The host concludes by reminding all that there is no substitute for the “real” experience. Such schoolmarmish admonitions are superfluous; the mall environment imparts that message for more effectively.

Instead of the feeling of anticipation that accompanies you across the Lincoln Center Plaza and under the high arcades of the Met’s facade, you slog in your car across acres of asphalt then jockey with circling SUVs for a parking spot, before tramping through the salty winter slush and entering through cheap glass doors cut into endless faux-stucco backside of a endless box ornamented only by the multiplex’s neon sign. You then buy tickets in a depressing corridor beneath an LED board advertising the latest movies from Hollywood like Fifty Shades of Gray and SpongeBob.

Comparing these cultural products to those being beamed out from the Met might nourish in some a sense of cultural superiority. In me it stokes despair. Assuming one can afford to get in, an opera house should lift the spirits; American mall architecture crushes them.

This malaise is to be combatted not with popcorn and coke in containers the size of oil drums, but with an even more toxic condiment: ironic illusion. It’s Carnival in Venice, and is that the Doge and his guest, the Duke of Hanover over there in the Foot Locker each trying on a pair thirtieth anniversary edition Air Jordans before heading to their luxury simulcast loge? And that must be Handel striding out of Target with a family-pack of Milk Duds tucked under one arm and a Crock-Pot Cook & Carry programmable cooker under the other.

In spite of the dispiriting milieu, the gravitational attraction of opera is strong enough to draw me—and thousands of others—into malls across America for this Valentine’s double feature.

The opener, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta offers a rapturously optimistic view of this Hallmark holiday’s main topic: love. Conveniently, this also happens to be opera’s main topic. Tchaikovsky’s one-act crow-pleaser has never before been staged at the Met, and the piece moves briskly from darkness to nearly blinding light, swept towards it happy end by the composer’s surging melodies and sumptuous orchestration. The title figure, sung by Anna Netrebko, is a blind princess who, on order of her father the king, has been sequestered at a hunting lodge where she is attended by a royal staff charged with keeping from her the knowledge of her own disability: she must never find out that others can see and therefore that she cannot. The purity and power of Netrebko’s extraordinary voice conveys the enforced naiveté of her circumstance and the untapped longing that will inevitably flow out of her at the opera’s climax.

The King, sung by Ukrainian-born bass Ilya Bannik with a troubled paternal concern that spills over into menace, ordains death for anyone disabuses his daughter of the fiction that he has imposed on her. Thus the libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest cleverly and concisely imagines a world in which sound trumps sight. This is a world, therefore, where music should reign supreme.

The opera was premiered along with The Nutcracker in St. Petersburg in 1892, the year before the composer’s death, and although fearing the exhaustion of his creative energies, Tchaikovsky found himself inspired to wrap his characters in thick and colorful raiment of song to warm them in the plot’s wintery setting. It is not only the composer’s vast talent for melody, but also his ability to profile action and intent that captivate—from the portentous pronouncements of the king to the ingenuous wonder of his daughter.

The production is not just to be heard, of course, but also to be seen. This is opera, after all. Taking a somewhat simplistic approach to the work’s theme, the production mounted under the Polish film director Mariusz Trelinski opts for the stark tonalities of black and white. His approach favors a rather obvious interpretation of seeing and blindness—not to mention good and evil. Indeed, King René himself risks wringing what little life is left in the imagery’s metaphor by wearing only one black glove, leaving his other pale hand to fret and wander in front of his black uniform of fascist hue and cut.

Even if such ploys are more than a bit predictable, Trelinski imbues the scenario with a magical sense of expansiveness and possibility through video effects that must have been stunning in the opera house itself. Unfortunately, they could only be suggested on the movie screen, as in the snowfall that encircles Iolanta’s mountain lodge making it seem like a fairy-tale snow globe, or the dome of stars that stretches over her when (spoiler alert!) an Islamic doctor cures her of her blindness, her vision lifted towards the night heavens by the billowing updrafts of the Met Orchestra under famed Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, the man who discovered Netrebko in St. Petersburg some twenty years ago.

Netrebko’s dark-haired, robust beauty was to be feasted on not just by the multiplex audience, but also by the two noblemen who happen upon her cabin toting cross-country skis and sporting parkas so new that the pair seemed to have just bought them in our mall’s outdoor store a short distance down the corridor.

Neither movies nor operas are strangers to coincidence, and Duke Robert (Aleksei Markov) just happens to be Iolanta’s betrothed, their impending marriage having been arranged years before. Luckily for the plot, Robert is in love with someone else. After his bluff entrance onto the scene, Robert duly knocks out a brash love song, “Who can compare with my Mathilde” before going to get reinforcements so as to deal with the looming catastrophe caused by the intemperate passions of his companion Vaudémont, sung with supercharged ardor by the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. Vaudémont has fallen hopelessly and immediately in love with the blind heroine. Left alone with her, the tenor’s describes the colors and beauties of the natural world in joyous arcs of melody as if he were blinded to danger by Tchaikovsky’s musical raptures.

Though this scenario has plenty of potential for full-on tragedy, a speedy happy ending brings things to a close in well under two hours. But one can’t help but remember that the last of the Romanov tsars, Nicholas II, would ascend the Russian throne two years after the opera’s premiere, and that even if Iolanta gained sight and bliss, the real royal family, trapped in its own illusions, would not be so lucky.

At intermission I felt another gravitational force tugging at my trouser hem—a blockbuster black hole by the name of Fifty Shades of Gray over in theatre 12. I drifted in. Up on this screen the lissome soubrette implored Mr. Gray to show her what he wanted. He asked her if she were sure. She nodded and stripped. He chose a whip from his impressive collection and she bent over and he made her count as he flogged her. I hadn’t seen such volcanic passions and twisted desires on display since My Dinner with André. I yawned, and as I retreated from theatre 12 I noticed that that place was not as full as the Met simulcast. Score one for high culture, at least in the matinée time slot!

Once safely down the hallway again, I settled in for the second half of the operatic double bill as Bartok’s bleak and ravishing harmonies and his phrases, jagged and yearning, groped through a soundscape in which the brutally modern collides and sometimes coalesces with the richly Romantic. Having had his cozy hut and ski holiday in Iolanta, director Trelinski set his Bluebeard’s Castle in a battered post-industrial loft, its concrete walls in video projection streaked with heavy metal sludge or blood—or both. The picturesque trees of the Russian forest became blasted trunks and tombstones to the crazed monarch’s murdered wives. The antler trophies of Iolanta’s lodge were transformed to stuffed deer’s head, fleshed and furred. The first king’s fascist jodhpurs and jacket were retailored into the second one’s black-and-white tuxedo. This Bluebeard also was made to do did the one-glove-on, one-glove-off thing, thus casting a troubling shadow back on King René’s threatening behavior before intermission.

The plain shift, and later the simple frock adorning the gracefully rounded form of Netrebko were recut as a provocative cocktail dress eventually shed to reveal a sweat-soaked slip that clung to the sculpted body of Bluebeard’s latest victim, Judith, sung by the German soprano Nadja Michael with a scalding intensity and obsessive desire that was its own form of blindness. Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko sang and acted Bluebeard with a disturbing poise; as the lovers proceeded through the rooms of the post-apocalyptic castle, he gave the part an inexorable homicidal crescendo that led not towards light but darkness instead.

As the opera closed and Judith joined the wandering mortal remains of her female predecessors, it occurred to me that I’d just watched the same story as the one probably still flailing on over in theatre 12: that old tale of an unquenchably submissiveness woman yearning to satisfy a man—in other words, the standard stuff of male fantasy in whatever theatre you happen to stumble into.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com