Monday, September 28, 2009

"Trovatore" at the Ballpark: A Distanced Viewing

Saturday the 19th, my friend Chanelle and I went to AT&T Park, where the Giants play, to see the live broadcast of San Francisco Opera's Il Trovatore. The ballpark atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, despite the chilly San Francisco night. Chanelle and I sat in the bleachers above third base and shared chicken tenders, garlic fries, and an ice cream sundae while waiting for the opera to start.

Trovatore has a famously nonsensical plot, and I'm not even talking about the whole "throwing the wrong baby on the fire" business, because Stephanie Blythe was so good at portraying a deranged Gypsy woman that you believed she could've gone into a delusional trance and killed her own child. No, what bothers me is how the characters must behave in increasingly illogical ways in order to prolong the plot, when a simpler solution is often staring them in the face. Act I ends with Manrico and Count di Luna dueling beneath Leonora's window. In the next scene, Azucena asks Manrico, "Why didn't you kill Luna?"

"Yeah, why didn't he kill him?" I said to Chanelle. "Oh, that's right. He can't kill him because then the opera would be over."

"Maybe it's because killing him would've been too dangerous," Chanelle suggested. "Manrico is already a wanted man and if he killed a Count, he'd probably be in even more trouble."

But unfortunately, Chanelle's explanation is far too logical for an opera like Trovatore. Instead, Manrico sings, "My sword was poised above Luna's throat--and then I heard a voice from Heaven say 'Do not kill him!'" Talk about a deus ex machina!

A similar problem crops up at the end of Act II. Leonora is about to enter a convent and Luna arrives with his soldiers to kidnap her--only to discover that Manrico and his band of Gypsies have also arrived to bust Leonora out of there! There is a clash and Manrico's group wins, so as the curtain falls, we see Luna surrounded by Gypsies who point guns and knives at him. But in the next act, with no explanation given, he's free, back with his own soldiers. I wish that the staging of the Act II finale had shown how Luna escaped from the Gypsies. Otherwise, it's just another lapse of logic.

Other than that, I thought the production (directed by David McVicar, seen at the Met last season) was OK, if not dazzling. Updating the era from medieval times to the early 1800s respected the opera's Romantic/melodramatic atmosphere, while also making the costumes more flattering and less laughable than medieval doublets would be. The Anvil Chorus, despite the presence of bare-chested men with big hammers, even managed to avoid campiness.

It was a solid cast, too, especially on the female side. I already said that Stephanie Blythe made a terrific Azucena. Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora) reminded me a bit of Marcia Gay Harden, looks-wise--a "handsome" woman, not a flighty young girl. Her voice is well-controlled and (at least as broadcast in the ballpark) loud; unfortunately, she was totally upstaged during her Act I aria by a little boy who slipped under the ropes surrounding the baseball diamond and started running around the field, quite agilely evading capture. Marco Berti's acting did not illuminate any hidden depths in the character of Manrico (he stuck to typical "Romantic Opera Hero" poses) but his voice navigated the challenges of this role. As for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who played Count di Luna, I can't decide whether I'm glad he resisted the temptation to act like a Snidely Whiplash villain, or whether he should have taken a less subtle approach. I'm inclined to say the latter, though--the story is so melodramatic that old-fashioned stage villainy would fit right in, and besides, since Hvorostovsky is much handsomer than Berti, the audience needs a clear reason to hate him!

All the same, I'm not describing these performers with as much detail as I sometimes would--and that's because I still don't feel like I saw the opera. Overall I found Opera at the Ballpark a frustrating experience--my vision constrained by the shots and camera angles that the director of the broadcast chose; my ears uncertain whether these singers would really sound this way in the theater; and, though the screen was indeed as big as advertised, I was sitting much further from it than I would typically sit from the stage of the opera house. I've seen opera broadcasts on TV and even once in a movie theater and been cool with that, so I wasn't expecting this experience to frustrate me so much--but somehow, perhaps because of the sheer number of people in the ballpark and my extreme distance from the screen, it did. (Furthermore, with the Sonnambula broadcast last spring, my reaction was "Cool, I get to see something that is happening 3000 miles away!"--whereas Trovatore provoked the question "Why am I watching this as a broadcast? It's happening only two miles away!")

Maybe this speaks more to my own personal issues than to anything else, but I have recently been fetishizing the immediate experience--and Opera at the Ballpark, obviously, is a heavily mediated event. Sometimes I feel like I am wandering through life in a fog (ok, I live in San Francisco, so I literally wander through fog on a regular basis--but you know that's not what I meant)--I fret that I intellectualize things too much, that I see things through the prism of books, that I am too guarded and cynical, that I do not live life to the fullest or allow life to permeate and astound me. Big, idealistic words, I know! But I can't help feeling that it would be easier to be astounded if I were seeing the performance live. Our reactions in the ballpark felt muted: though we cheered after the big arias, our applause never lasted as long as it did in the opera house. We were sheepish; the people who were there in person were moved, transported, enthralled.

Chanelle said she liked being able to watch opera in a relaxed, unpretentious environment, junk food at the ready. But I have never been one of those people who is uncomfortable with formality; rubbing elbows with wealthy opera patrons doesn't intimidate me, and if anything, I like the opportunity to wear a nice dress! Then I tried to think of Opera at the Ballpark as a throwback to Rossini's or Mozart's time, where opera audiences ate and chatted throughout the performance. But then, when I did talk during the opera (engaging Chanelle in that conversation about why Manrico didn't kill Luna), our neighbors shushed us! This seemed to me like the worst of both worlds: you couldn't experience the opera as well as you could in the opera house, and yet you still had to be on your best behavior.

I don't want to make it sound like I hate Opera at the Ballpark or think it should be discontinued. I recognize its utility and would certainly recommend it for people who want to learn more about opera or introduce their kids to it, people who can't afford tickets, and/or people who are put off by opera's "high-culture" trappings. But at the same time, for someone like me--who already knows she likes opera, and can afford to buy tickets, and doesn't mind putting on nice shoes and going to the opera house--it is not so useful.

Images from San Francisco Opera. Top: Manrico and Azucena. Bottom: Leonora pleads with Count di Luna.

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