Accessing a delightful comic opera

by Rob Tiller

On Saturday I went to my first live opera in a movie theatre: Don Pasquale, transmitted live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center to Raleigh’s North Hills Shopping Center (among hundreds of other theatres around the globe). When I lived in New York, I sometimes bought the best tickets I could afford for the Met, which were for standing room. There were always people who left after act one, so it was usually possible to get a good orchestra seat for the rest of the show. And so I learned that the Met is a magical place, with some of the most incredible singing on the planet, and also some of the most astonishing stagecraft. It was great to be back.

I put my interest in opera on the back burner after leaving New York for law school, and with the normal pressures of career and parenthood it fell off the priority list. I’ve come back to it recently with fresh enthusiasm. Part of the reason was my passion for the piano music of Chopin. He enjoyed what we know as the bel canto repertory (Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini), and I started listening to that music to better understand his musical thinking. It’s a kind of time travel, a visit to another culture that’s both submerged and still alive. A lot of bel canto music is not particularly deep, but it is charming and at times brilliant.

Sally took her tennis team to the state finals in Winston-Salem this week, and so was not able to go to Don Pasquale. Diane, Sally’s mom, is a big opera buff, and we went to the show together. I sent an email to the Red Hat local employees’ list offering her ticket for free, and Roger H. accepted. I had not reckoned on how difficult it would be to find parking at North Hills, and we ended up running late. Roger came to the rescue. As we circled the parking lot, he called my cell, and said he was saving good seats for us.

James Levine conducted. The camera faced him as he did the overture. He was very expressive, at times smiling, at times heroic, and full of enthusiasm. He’s had many health problems recently, and I felt privileged to see him, especially in this revealing aspect. He’s a national treasure.

Don Pasquale, which was new to me and to others I talked to, is the 64th of Donizetti’s 66 operas, first produced in 1843 (when Chopin was 33). It’s a comedy that concerns young lovers’ efforts to overcome the aged don, who fancies himself a young lover, and unite. The plot is not especially intricate or elegant, but the main characters are funny and lively, and the music is a masterpiece of the tuneful bel canto genre. Anna Netrebko was fabulous as Norina — flirtatious and sexy, even if she had put on a few pounds, and with an amazingly powerful and flexible voice. Barry Banks was Ernesto, her lover, and though his character was less interesting, his singing was very musical. John Del Carlo was hilarious as the Don. The photography was skillful, with varied angles and close-ups, and the sound quality was good. There were English subtitles. The music was delightful throughout.

Between scenes, the broadcast showed the work backstage on scene changes. I love backstage views, and getting a close up of how the magic works at this state-of-the-art theatre was fascinating. There were also good-natured interviews by Susan Graham with the principals. We also had a chance to get to know Roger, who grew up in Hong Kong, and briefed us on the music scene there. He said he really enjoyed the show.

Opera is an acquired taste. Once acquired, it’s incredibly enjoyable, but initially, it can seem mannered, strange, or boring. The audience for opera has always been limited, partly because it’s been so difficult to try it out and get accustomed to its conventions. It’s wonderful that the Met is using HD simulcasts of high quality to multiply by orders of magnitude the opportunities to experience this great art. I expect there will be many who try it and like it. I’m looking forward to seeing many more.