May 13, 2012

A farewell to suspension of disbelief...

living in an unheated Paris apartment



who ignites the lust of every man in sight

This is not about making fun of people's appearance.  Eating can be as much of an addiction as smoking.  And the melancholy facts of biology, amplified by a few decades of gravity acting on the human body, will eventually make all of us look like a piece of luggage that's been through too many airports.

Opera singers are not immune to such realities of life.  If anything, they are further disadvantaged by certain necessities peculiar to their profession.  One is that a voice capable of soaring effortlessly and musically above the surging fortes of a full-sized orchestra requires years of singing less demanding roles before it settles into a refined and long-lasting instrument.  Which means that by the time opera singers become really good at what they do, their rosy-cheeked and milky-skinned youth is well behind them.  Another is that very powerful voices tend to come with refrigerator-sized chest cavities enclosed in bodies ample of hip and generous of bosom.
Until the arrival of opera on DVD the singer's physical appearance, even if grotesquely unsuitable for the role, has never posed a problem that could not be solved by the combination of an inch-thick layer of makeup, concealing costume, merciful lighting, and at least 15 -20 feet of distance to the nearest viewers.  But when trying to suspend disbelief while watching live video recordings of operas on DVD, I have to struggle against frequent, lingering, high definition wide-screen close-up shots of the singers' faces and bodies.

I lose this struggle every time.  And how could I not if instead of Puccini's starving poet and Strauss' teenage princes the video screen shows me (respectively) a glistening fat fuck and a once very busy but now long retired Las Vegas whore?  Even when an excellent singer's appearance happens to be perfect for the role (e.g., Laura Aikin in the magnificent production of Lulu from Zurich), the sadistic timing of close-ups during vocally demanding parts does its best to focus my attention on torrential downpours of sweat, bulging eyes, popping veins, straining neck muscles, contorted faces - in short, on all the things you'd expect to see in a patient undergoing colonoscopy without anesthesia.

As far as I can tell, it takes a hopeless retard in charge of filming a live opera performance to embrace indiscriminate application of cinematic close-ups to a genre which thrives on highly exaggerated makeup, gestures, and diction required for projecting emotions and meanings in theaters with a seating capacity in the thousands.  Aside from having permanently humiliated some dedicated and talented singers challenged by their weight or age, this "cinematization" of opera has also led to the increasingly frequent casting of singers based on their appearance instead of their singing abilities and musical talents.   I certainly can't argue against the visual thrill of Salome portrayed by a slim, sexy nymphet in a skimpy nighty, who rubs her cheek against the thigh  - and barely an inch away from the penis - of a muscled and fully naked slave holding the bloodied head of Jokanaan in his hand.  But every time the nymphet opens her mouth to execute one of those wide-leaping intervals, I wish that the slave's penis were shoved deep down her throat to keep her from screeching and squealing through her vocal part at 1/4 to 1/2 tone below true pitch on many high notes.

With the recent flurry of newspaper "pieces" debating the rise of live opera videocasting in movie theaters, I thought the above issues would be at the top of the list of topics for serious discussion.  Alas, so far this toothless "debate" seems to have all the markings of an implicit PR campaign aimed at promoting the business of filmed opera... 

  

4 comments:

laybl said...

Yes, I've seen a live performance of "Turandot" at the Met with a lead played by a woman so rotund that she couldn't lie on the ground without starting to roll over--"Oh, the Manatee!"...one questioned the sanity of the lovers who risked their lives in pursuit of her hand.

An acceptable alternative was a DVD of "Eugene Onegin" with attractive leads and avoidance of closeups during arias...gorgeous voices handsome players...and no Marni Nixon!

welker said...

That Laura Aikin Lulu is really good - one hardly minds the missing 3rd act, which in the productions I have seen (Chereau/Boulez on TV, Kupfer/Gielen in Frankfurt - this was more involving) seemed too long for its material in the Paris scene, which may or may not have been Cerha's fault. On stage Helga Pilarzcyk in the 2 act version (Hamburg, 1960s) was stunning by virtue of artistic intensity and suggestion, though DVD close-ups would have revealed less than youthful features. Ah, tempi passati!

Kip W [Muffaroo] said...

I watched the Met's "Butterfly" in a movie theater here. The puppet who plays the kid was a good enough actor, but whenever the camera closed in on it, I was reminded in one more way that I was seeing a show. It would have been a convincing illusion on the stage, with the audience in its proper place.

You could say I'm quibbling about an inherently unrealistic medium, but it's still possible to get lost in the production before something like this comes along and pulls me back out.

Boom said...

Kip W [Muffaroo] said...

>> You could say I'm quibbling about an inherently unrealistic medium, but it's still possible to get lost in the production before something like this comes along and pulls me back out. <<

Kip,

I could not agree more. My only real problem is frequent close-ups. Just recently I watched a gorgeously produced and performed Parsifal from 2004 Baden-Baden. The Festspielhaus is the largest theater in Germany, with capacity of 2500 people. Accordingly, Waltraud Meier was projecting gestures and facial expressions for this huge venue. Yet the constant close-ups on her face made her superior acting look downright ludicrous! I only could grind my teeth in frustration...