These close-ups are one of the major events of the telecasts. Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, in Puccini's La rondine, was certainly ready for hers. She's beautiful and a good actress — you wanted to see her face. But young soprano Angela Meade, in Verdi's Ernani, either over-acted or else conveyed no emotion at all. Close-ups didn't help. In the pre-television days, audiences were content to hear great singing pouring out of bodies that weren't particularly glamorous. Would Voigt have chosen gastric bypass surgery if she weren't going to be televised? But the slimmed-down soprano seems to have lost more in vocal richness than she gained in pulchritude.
In the title role of Massenet's Manon, the Met's reigning diva, Anna Netrebko, looked better, more touching, as the pudgy adolescent in the first act and the dying deportee in the last than as the gussied-up femme fatale in between. But the close-ups that hurt her most were the audio ones. The electronic miking exaggerated her questionable pitch and muzzy diction. She also has not been expertly directed. In Donizetti's Anna Bolena, when Anne Boleyn learns that she's going to be executed, Netrebko threw herself across her bed face down and pounded her fists on the mattress, like a pouty teenager.
The most controversial new production at the Met has been its now completed Wagner Ring cycle, which New Yorker music critic Alex Ross considers catastrophic. On the basis of the HD telecasts, I'm inclined to agree. The center of interest in Robert Lepage's production is its own set, a $16 million, 45-ton mechanical monster that features singers dangling from Peter Pan harnesses, projections on the performers as well as the scenery, and the sound of its own elaborate gears grinding. (What a metaphor!) Apparently the machinery now functions mainly during louder parts of the music. One of the silliest stage images I've ever seen comes at the grand climax of the last opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung, when Voigt, as Brünnhilde — in order to join Siegfried on his funeral pyre, whose flames will reach Valhalla and bring down the gods — is carefully helped onto a nodding puppet-horse and trots off.
James Levine magnificently conducted the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold, and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was an imposing ruler of the gods. But Levine's increasingly debilitating back problems forced him out of the production — indeed, out of conducting — and his replacement, Fabio Luisi, the Met's principal conductor, who led a vital Don Giovanni, is not yet a convincing Wagnerian. Like Lepage's self-reflexive stage direction, Luisi's conducting — though clear — lacked point, lacked urgency, lacked weight (unlike Lepage's ponderous set). Wagner operas require some combination of magnificent voices and great acting, but very few in the cast lived up to the demands. The most thoroughly realized performance was by bass-baritone Eric Owens as the evil dwarf, Alberich. Neither Voigt, nor the endearing newcomer tenor from Texas, Jay Hunter Morris — a last-minute replacement who created a sympathetic character — had the vocal chops for truly great Wagnerian singing.
At a public dialogue at MIT last weekend, Lepage told Met general manager Peter Gelb, who's largely responsible for these HD telecasts, that Wagner's libretto "reads like a film script." This cinematic quality was what he was aiming for with his moving planks and video projections. But a good movie also makes you care about the characters and emotions.