Following their established and successful tradition of live broadcasts, the Met offered the last production of the 2008-09 season, Rossini's La Cenerentola, to a million-wide public, in the process underlining the fact that very concept of a 'live' stage event has over the few last years been notably stretched by new technology.
A lively and engaging Thomas Hampson showed the audience around the Met's backstage, with the orchestra tuning-up as soundtrack. As the camera sneaks into the projection room, we eavesdrop the initial directions - 'Maestro to the pit, please'. The transmission can get under way.
The ironic tones of La Cenerentola's Overture were finely caught by conductor Maurizio Benini and the Met orchestra's polished and energetic interpretation. On stage, Cesare Lievi's 1997 production, with set and costume designs by Maurizio Baló, imagined Rossini's re-elaboration of Perrault's celebrated fairytale as a mixture of Alice in Wonderland's cartoonish fantasies and Magritte-like impressions
In its vocal realization, this Cenerentola was well-nigh faultless. Elīna Garanča was entirely at ease in what seems to be her last appearance as a Rossinian heroine for a while, as she has recently declared. She sang even the most intricate lines with confidence and wit. My only reservations were that Garanča's interpretation favoured some aspects of the character rather than others: she seemed suited more to majesty and charm than to 'innocenza e bontà' - innocence and goodness. On the other hand, the glamorous twist she gave Cenerentola functions perfectly in relation to this televised event.
Young American Lawrence Brownlee proved himself yet again one of the finest bel canto tenors of his generation. The suavity with which he painted his virtuoso lines was astonishing. His 'Sì, ritrovarla io giuro' was delivered with touching anxiousness that aptly conveyed the lover's wish to find his mysterious woman again. Despite being towered over (even physically) by Garanča, Brownlee portrayed a memorable Prince Charming.
La Cenerentola is also a work in which the grim sides of power relations are depicted. It was mainly to Alessandro Corbelli's Don Magnifico that these were effectively represented on stage. Vocally, he was an ideal combination of buffoonery and ruthless angst and greed; his cruelty towards Cenerentola felt realistically painful. At the same time, he was able to bring the more pathetic side of the character to the surface, especially in his servile attitude to both the fake and the real Prince, and in his dealings with his other two daughters - portrayed with great skill by Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley.
Simone Alberghini was also a strong point of this production. Both when at centre of the scene and in minor situations, he always managed to create a special connection to the other characters, interacting with vocal and acting precision. His distinguished Italianate temperament makes him an ideal Dandini.
It is also thanks to Daniela Schiavone's choreography and Sharon Thomas' stage direction that the communication between the characters was successful. In particular, the exploitation of a vocally precise chorus for choreographic purposes is particularly witty and elegant in this production. The camera work did an excellent job in highlighting the scene composition, redolent of Magritte's blue and black visions.
Unfortunately, if the performance was outstanding, the equally vital technical side was more problematic. With the curtain rising for the second act, some issues in the audio transmission made a few minutes very painful for the audience. Intermittent and out-of-sync audio made the live performance feel extremely distant - perhaps with some secret disillusionment, together with reasonable disappointment. To those members of the audience who left, Picturehouse assured a complete refund and apologised for what seemed to be a problem from the New York end (the source of the defect is not yet clear).
As this latest experience showed, live broadcasts are a delicate business. In an interview with the Met, Director of HD transmissions Gary Halvorson referred to his job as a mixture of trusting the script and improvisation: 'It's a question of interpretation. Nothing's locked like it would be on a film set. I have to stay loose. I script everything in detail because then I have it, and then I have the option not to follow it. It's like in rock and roll, where there's no script; it's all about following the rhythm'.
Like every 'improvised' work, each broadcast is a challenge in which the technical reality meets (and sometimes clashes with) artistic aspirations and the public's expectations. Nonetheless, I believe that the possibility of experiencing memorable performances such as this Cenerentola will continue to make live broadcasts a tightrope worth walking.
Photo: Elina Garanca. Photo Credits: Simon Fowler / Virgin Classics
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