Undoubtedly for some, seeing opera live in cinemas is quite enjoyable. As I reclined in my large seat and munched on some popcorn at my nearest local cinema (Curzon Chelsea), I wondered if displaced opera was the way of the future. After all, there are serious advantages to watching opera in a cinema; the chairs are larger, the sound completely uniform, the picture crystal clear (complete with close-ups of the singers), and, one can even get away with muffled—though still discrete—whispering (!). This experience is a far cry from the all too often small chairs of yesteryear, the variance in sound quality and volume depending on where one sits, the minuscule figure one may see when sitting in the back of the house, and, of course, the nineteenth-century code of etiquette everyone (ideally) observes when attending the opera. To make it better, Verdi's Ernani, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was fantastic; a brilliant cast and a very well-designed production made for great viewing.
Marco Armiliato kept things together with decidedly fervent flair; under his baton, the orchestra was a cohesive whole that had no problem supporting the singers and creating some beautiful moments, especially in the bel canto-esque phrases. The Met Chorus sounded well balanced (but, as usual, still warbly) and one wonders if that is Armiliato's influence. This production's sets were grandiose but forgettable; they were the perfect background for the drama.
As Ernani, Marcello Giordani brought his powerful tenor to the demands of the role very well. Despite some somewhat bland and poorly committed moments, he managed to convince the audience by coloring his voice incredibly well throughout, although his diction could have been slightly crisper. However, Giordani did have some trouble keeping up with his co-star, Angela Meade, who, as Elvria, was sumptuous. She sang with a powerfully agile voice. Meade was especially good in her opening cavatina, "Ernani, Ernani involami," which she sang with a crystal clear tone and an incredible sense of pitch; she is certainly a young singer to watch out for! Ferruccio Furlanetto is still fantastic, though he does sound ever so slightly diminished these days. One could not help but notice that, at times, his upper range loses its pitch accuracy. Still, one must marvel at his capacity for not only communication, but also spectacularly pure legato singing.
Of course, the highest praise must go to Dmitri Hvorostovsky. His stylistic acumen is still as sharp as ever, and his subtle flair for virtuosity continues to be alluring. His lyricism, working in tandem with the unquantifiable silkiness of his tone, made for a striking "Oh, de'verd'anni miei." Even in his character's weakest dramatic moment (the ridiculous pardon at the end of Act III), he managed to sing his way into our hearts.
Watching opera live at a cinema was certainly an interesting experience, but there were drawbacks to seeing the opera on-screen rather than on-stage. Most importantly, the sound was misrepresented in a number of ways (primarily in terms of balance), and in opera that is obviously a problem. The screen also had a desensitizing effect: every day we are saturated by screens, and it's easy to glaze over while watching (even for a musicologist whose focus is Italian opera!). Opera is a great art form in part because it boldly demands attention; the sensuality (among other qualities) of a live and unfiltered voice is an experience not to be missed, and those of us who experience it regularly often forget what a life-changing experience opera is.
It is wonderful that opera has become more accessible, but it should be recognized that the stuff we are seeing on-screen is not "opera: the experience," but opera through the narrow lens of a camera (something quite different), transmitted for a few hours and then forgotten in the same amount of time because, for me, live from the Met or otherwise, it just wasn't special enough.
Perhaps this displacement is the way of the future, a means for modern audiences to redefine and extend the operatic experience. Then again, perhaps not.