Monday, December 28, 2015

December 25, 2009: Reinterpreting opera as film: the latest effort

There are two ways to approach the rendering of opera in the medium of film or video.  One is to "capture" an actual performance, preferably with camera work that will present the opera being performed in the best possible light.  This has been the basic strategy behind the Live in HD series of productions by the Metropolitan Opera.  The results have been variable;  but, when they have been positive, they have been more than impressively so.  The other approach is to rethink the entire conception of the opera, recognizing that the grammar of film differs from the grammar of the stage in significantly different ways.  The film director who understood this the best was one who was equally at home with both grammars, Franco Zeffirelli.  When he reconceived Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata as a film in 1982, he not only left a memorable legacy of some of the best Metropolitan Opera performers of that period but also left all future film directors with a tough act to follow.

This week the PBS series Great Performances presented director Robert Dornhelm's effort to follow that act with a cinematic conception of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème;  and, as if the Great Performances producers feared that we did not know what we were going to get, they presented the result under the title La Bohème:  The Movie.  It has also been released as a DVD by Kultur;  and, while the package cover (pictured above) simply gives the name of the opera, the page refers to it as La Boheme: The Film (apparently neglecting the grave accent on the "e").  Now, to be fair, this document has the value of an opportunity to hear Rolando Villazón in full voice before he was obliged to cancel most of his engagements for health reasons;  but, if that is the major motivation, then he deserved better treatment than what he received from Dornhelm.  The same can be said of all the other musicians involved in this project, particularly conductor Bertrand de Billy, whose name flies by before you realize why it was there and appears to be entirely absent from the DVD cover, which identifies only Villazón and Anna Netrebko.

The real problem, however, goes beyond giving credit where credit is due.  Presumably, as is usually the case, all film was shot after the entire opera had been recorded, with all performers lip-synching to their recorded voices.  Unfortunately, this is one of those cases in which the studio amplification balance work tends to undermine both the drama and its visualization.  We are given the impression that Villazón is always singing full-out.  This has a variety of problems.  Most important is that he has a physical disposition that shows the strain of such a forceful voice, and Dornhelm's camera is never kind to appearance of that disposition.  However, from a dramatic point of view, all that force undermines the climax of the opera.  Rodolfo's primal scream of grief upon discovering that Mimi has now died is just another instance of Villazón in full voice, perhaps even weaker than any preceding instances.

Since so much of the action of this opera takes place on Christmas Eve, by all rights this DVD could have made an excellent Christmas gift.  It may still do for those (many?) who are enthusiastic fans of Netrebko and Villazón (particularly while waiting for his performance schedule to get back in full gear).  However, while Zeffirelli's Traviata could not only satisfy opera fans but also make a case to everyone else about what excited those fans, Dornhelm's conception is unlikely to hook any potential newcomers into going to a performance of La Bohème;  and, given how we used to rely on PBS in the "good old days" to inspire curiosity in the performing arts, this latest Great Performances product is a great disappointment.

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