Last Saturday afternoon I drove to Cinema West in Fairfax, decided 12:30pm isn't too early for popcorn, bought my ticket and went inside. Was I there for the latest epic romance? An indie film playing only at select theaters? A revival of a classic? Turns out it was a little of all three: San Francisco Opera's first theatrical release of Giacomo Puccini's La Rondine.
I'd been looking forward to this matinee for months. My husband, on the other hand, spent the drive to Fairfax enumerating the many other ways that we could spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon. But even he was won over by the benefits of opera at the movies. For example: you can wear jeans, there's no pressure about clapping at the right or wrong time, tickets cost under $20, and you can enjoy soda and candy during the show. More importantly the sound quality is excellent, the picture is in high definition, and the cameras capture subtleties and expressions that can get lost in a big opera house. We were both genuinely moved by the story and by the immediacy of seeing the performers up close, thirty feet high, revealing the characters' lives and loves to Puccini's sweeping, romantic music. While it can't replace the energy and excitement of a live performance, the theatrical release provides a more intimate and casual way to experience opera.
La Rondine (The Swallow) tells the story of Magda, a young Parisian woman who lives in luxury as the mistress of a wealthy banker. When she falls in love with Ruggero, a naive young man from the country, she gives up the pleasures of her life in Paris, and must eventually decide whether she will deceive her young lover about her past. Though the opera is rarely performed, this production is an argument for mounting it more often due largely to the magnetic and deeply felt performance by Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu as Magda. Her voice is clear and rich and she floats high notes with grace and power. Equally revelatory is her physical portrayal, inhabiting Magda as a lively and conflicted young woman who seems to want to squeeze every drop of life from each moment. Gheorghiu is supported by excellent physical and vocal performances from Gerard Powers as the dapper poet Prunier and Anna Christy as the flighty maid Lisette. Only Misha Didyk, as the lover Ruggero, appeared stiff and was better to listen to than to watch. But the opera belongs to Gheorghiu's Magda, and she holds the audience's attention throughout.
Operas have been filmed for decades, often for release on public television, with mixed results in capturing the vibrancy and depth of live performances. But recent advances in digital technology have opened up new options for filming live operatic performances. San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, both under new general directors since 2006, are taking advantage of this technology to bring opera out of the opera house and to wider audiences. In 2007, San Francisco Opera installed a high definition video production center at the War Memorial Opera House and filmed four operas from the season, which are now being released in movie theaters. The Met has been transmitting select operas in movie theaters since 2006. The management of both companies insist that opera is still best seen live, but with so many people unable to attend a performance (cost and distance are frequently prohibitive) these theatrical releases are an exciting way to reach new and old audiences alike.
If you're interested in exploring this innovative way to enjoy opera, or you just like the idea of eating popcorn while a soprano warbles onscreen, there are plenty of opportunities. La Rondine will play at the Castro Theater on March 17, 2008 with future productions of Samson and Delilah, Don Giovanni, and Madama Butterfly airing in theaters around the Bay Area in March and April, 2008. More information is available at thebiggerpicture. The Met's next release is Benjamin Britten's dark and brooding Peter Grimes, which plays in local theaters March 15-16, 2008.