October 9, 1998 (Ira Pilgrim)

Opera in the Electronic Age

An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English speaking audiences.

Edith Wharton, 1920

I have just seen a video of Donizetti's opera The Elixir of Love. At long last, the art of opera has reached a point where it will appeal to people who are not opera lovers. It was genuinely funny. The singers were not only superb singers, but good actors as well. The English titles were understandable.

I like the music and singing of some operas, but I often find the actual opera to be a bore. In order to like an opera, it is necessary to suspend belief, as one does with a cartoon. Often, fine singers are wooden indians on stage. They are often fat and their diction is atrocious.

Opera houses are built to hold lots of people. This makes sense because the more people, the more money. That is what the entertainment business is all about --money. Art be damned.

In the electronic age, all performing arts become much more intimate. Fine nuances of expression are evident to the viewer; unlike the stage, where the actors might as well be tiny puppets. A filmed stage performance exposes the cast to a scrutiny that can be disastrous. Often a superb singer can't act worth a damn. Luciano Pavarotti is now a pretty good performer. In his early days he was a stick figure rounded. Placido Domingo in film does a pretty good job of acting as long as he can be angry or hurt, but there is little subtlety. Fortunately, most operas don't call for much depth or subtlety.

The stars of the video of Elixir of Love are tenor Roberto Alagna and his wife soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Alagna, who is in his thirties, is as fine a singer as I have ever heard. His voice is exquisitely beautiful and his musicianship and artistry is superb. In this comic opera, he plays the part of a country bumpkin in love with Adina, played by Gheorghiu, who is a fine singer and fairly good actor. Alagna enters the scene on a bicycle and falls off of it. He comes up singing. He is, at different times, both pathetic and funny. Both of the Alagnas are young and good looking.

Tenors don't reach their prime until their forties. Who knows what Alagna will do. It seems likely to me that he may well be one of the greats. His work will be preserved forever on video and CDs.

The video of Elixir of Love was edited like a fine film to show the whole cast and the opera at its best.

What the cinema and television have done is to bring the most intimate details to the viewer; things that are impossible in a stage performance. The reproduction of sound is excellent. However, it can not match the live voice. It is a matter of taste whether you prefer live sound and a lack of intimacy, or the reverse.

My personal preference depends on who is performing. If it is someone with a magnificent voice who can't act, then I prefer the live performance. I even prefer the arias minus the rest of the opera, but on the concert stage. I prefer it in a theater with a small seating capacity. But if the singers can act, I find video or film to be much more enjoyable.

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