- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Few of the reviews of the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” had complaints about star soprano Karita Mattila’s voice. The Met is presenting the work that made Puccini’s name for the first time in 18 years simply so Miss Mattila can perform the title role.

Some critics, though, wondered whether a 47-year-old woman could convincingly play a young girl. “Youth Is Not Served in Met’s ‘Manon’ ” ran the headline in The Washington Post, whose reviewer wrote, “It is a tough job for any actress of a certain age to play a young teenager.”

Few of those sitting in Lincoln Center’s grand opera house would have noticed. Unless you’ve got a very good pair of opera glasses, you wouldn’t be able to make out much of the singers’ faces across the cavernous room.

Miss Mattila’s lovely though aging face will be on full display for tomorrow’s matinee performance, however: “Manon Lescaut” will be shown on huge movie screens across the country, including at Arlington’s Ballston Common and Alexandria’s Hoffman Center, as part of the Met’s high-definition simulcast series.

With the great success of this series — last month’s “Macbeth” by Verdi was sold out in hundreds of venues, including some in New York itself — the question opera critics around the country may be asking is: Are Karita Mattila and other middle-aged opera stars ready for their close-ups?

“HD close-ups are merciless,” declares popular blogger Opera Chic, a young, classically trained American who writes pseudonymously from Milan. (New Yorkers can see that city’s company tomorrow as well, as La Scala presents a recorded performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” on the big screen. It comes to the Charles Theatre in Baltimore on Wednesday.) “Especially when you consider that the open secret of opera is that a lot of singers use cortisone to ease the various inflammations of the throat and ailments to the vocal chords.” Cortisone can bloat a singer’s face up.

The Met started simulcasting just over a year ago and says its singers are as enthusiastic as the company. “The singers love the chance to communicate with a global audience in such a direct and immediate way,” it says.

But some of them are adding new pre-performance rituals. “Now you see a wonderful singer like Waltraud Meier showing up for her HD premiere performance of ‘Tristan und Isolde’ at La Scala with obvious Botox injections, all wrinkles chased from her 52-year-old face,” Opera Chic comments.

Observers note, however, that the growing trend toward opera singers who look — and act — the part began even before the recent push toward HD simulcasts. It’s due in part to new technology and in part to our celebrity culture, to which even the high arts aren’t immune.

“There’s huge pressure on female singers to lose weight and look younger, thinner, and hotter,” the blogger observes. “We all remember in 2004 when Deborah Voigt was fired from Covent Garden for being too fat. Then she underwent gastric bypass, shrunk to a size 10, and got her first Salome role, singing half-naked. Does she sound better now? No one really thinks so.”

The changing business side has also played a role: Opera Chic notes it’s now cheaper for companies to record a performance and release it on DVD than it is to bring the company into the studio to record a CD. This has already led to sonic tinkering, so why not visual?

“Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage at La Scala in December 2006 during ‘Aida,’ but the DVD that had already been recorded was fixed so well by sound engineers,” Opera Diva reports, “that what you hear is a very good, convincing Alagna.”

She argues that recorded opera is not the same art as live opera. “Opera is all about the unamplified voice,” she says. “Anything else than actually sitting in the opera house is in itself a different thing.”

She saw “La Traviata,” the production to be shown on movie screens, live last summer and thought soprano Angela Gheorghiu “sounded pretty bad.” But she sounded better on radio “simply because a small voiced soprano can sound like a hugely gifted singer thanks to the fact that they’re miked up.”

Some purists may decry the increasing attention paid to how singers look and act, but not journalist Jens Laurson, the blogger for local classical station WETA FM. “It will make for better, more entertaining and enthralling, more attractive opera,” he says, noting we’ve come a long way from the days when operas were made into films in which the singing and the acting were done by two different people. He says the move started happening before HD simulcasts, and in fact a more realistic opera has made broadcasting performances possible.

“Opera is becoming less the [province] of the voice fetishist but moving toward that which it ideally is: the combination of music and drama as equals,” he says. “For the beauty of pure voice there will always be the oratorio and art-songs or those few operas where the drama really is only an excuse for vocal display.”

Beautiful women like the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko benefit from this, of course. Mr. Laurson says her voice is “very good” but not “great.” But he welcomes her stardom. “She has the enviable ability to completely enter a character without being hampered by having to think anything at all,” he says. “That resonates — not just because she’s pretty.”

Resonate it certainly did: Her HD simulcast of Gounod’s “Romo et Juliette” was no. 11 in movie box-office the weekend it ran.

Wagner envisioned his operas as Gesamtkunstwerk — total artwork — that seamlessly combined music, drama, sets and words. But despite his influence on the genre, music has continued to trump those other aspects. Big screen opera could make Wagner’s vision a reality — and, both Opera Chic and Mr. Laurson say, bring in new fans.

“On stage and especially on the big screen or DVD the old routine of listless limb-extensions (left arm up means ‘hark! dramatic moment coming,’ both arms extended means ‘romance in the air’) and stiff delivery simply isn’t and shouldn’t be acceptable,” Mr. Laurson says. “The suspension of disbelief only goes so far. When Tristan and Isolde are so rotund that they cannot even touch each other in the course of what should be an exalted, four hour love-fest, then perhaps something did go horribly wrong.”

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