HD Broadcast of La Boheme: A Case of Contradictions

When Peter Gelb and Franco Zeffirelli shared the Metropolitan Opera stage after a the curtain fell on a performance of Zeffirelli’s legendary production of “La Boheme,” there certainly must have been a confusing sense of contradiction in the air.
Zeffirelli’s numerous productions of opera classics follow a pretty simple formula: enormous and stunning sets filled with hordes of chorus members (and usually some live animals) with a strict respect and attention to the music in its purest form results in giddy audience members and appalled critics. This tradition that started with Zeffirelli’s first production of Falstaff in 1964 has essentially come to define The Met’s entire approach to opera.
When Gelb took the post of New York’s flagship opera company a few years ago, he was seen by many as setting out on a conquest to completely revitalize that understanding. Recently the Met has seen a surge of exciting new productions by theater directors and in the coming years the opera will commission a handful of new operas by unlikely composers (such as music-theater composer Adam Guettel, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis).
Probably the most publicized and successful endeavor that Gelb initiated was the move to broadcast live opera performances in movie theaters across the country. Now if you live in the Twin Cities, it only takes $22 and a quick drive out to a movie theater in the suburbs to experience what is happening on the Met stage through HD visuals and full audio.
This effort has been almost unanimously lauded by people who are thrilled by the new dramatic depth that arises thanks to well-directed close-ups of world-class performers while also chowing down on a box of popcorn.
When John Doyle’s fresh production of “Peter Grimes” hit the big screens last month, many critics noted that the production was a little limp in real life but was breathtakingly engaging on the big screen. When Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production of “La Boheme” did the same this month, the result seemed to be the opposite.
The problem with the HD broadcast of “La Boheme” comes from the same root cause that made Peter Gelb’s public celebration of Zeffirelli’s contribution to the Met so awkward weeks earlier. I’m not the only one who was struck by the obvious contradiction here.
Zeffirelli himself noted in a New York Magazine interview that “[the event] had the smell of ashes. I didn’t feel really at ease in that funeral parade. I felt, I am here for my commemoration, not my celebration.” While Gelb is making an effort to exalt Zeffirelli’s work, he is at the same time planning to slowly phase out the Zeffirelli productions that are still a part of the Met’s repertory.
It was this tension between the old and the new that plagued La Boheme’s movie theater broadcast. The lack of dramatic depth and character complexity that audiences have grown used to forgiving in the context of beautiful stage designs and outstanding singing suddenly isn’t forgivable when the soprano’s face occupies an entire movie screen.
Certainly Zeffirelli never intended his production to be shared with audiences in this kind of intimate setting, but to the Met that setting is one that has not only brought opera to new audiences but it has flung the door wide open for opera artists to what seems like endless opportunities.
Its probably unfair and equally unlikely that the Met will abandon Zeffirelli’s productions altogether any time soon, but if nothing else, seeing “La Boheme” on the big screen is proof enough that the two men are at odds with each other. And it’s hard not to side with Gelb over Zeffirelli on this debate. You could be diplomatic about it and say that the two are simply heading in different directions, but as I see it Gelb has a pretty specific direction and Zeffirelli simply isn’t going anywhere anymore.

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~ by ohactually on April 8, 2008.

One Response to “HD Broadcast of La Boheme: A Case of Contradictions”

  1. “The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

    Your own words. Zefferelli handpicked the tv broadcast which was magnificent and with better actors than you see hoisted today in all the supposed GREAT, not, acting. Teresa Stratas and Jose Carerras were the two protaganists, they were amazing. when asked to do movies, no one does it better than Zeffirelli. When asked to do opera, no one does better than Zeffirelli. Let’s see if Doyle’s production is talked about and sold out houses 25 to 30 years later.

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