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Met opera on demand.

It was on the night of October 22, 1883 that the curtain rose on the very first performance of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. One hundred and twenty five years later (to the day, as though to help celebrate the occasion), the Met unveiled an exciting tool on its website with which the public could access a generous number of performances from the Met's long and rich history. Met Player (reviewed in Journal of Singing 66, no. 2 [November/December 2009]) began by serving up 170 audio and video recordings of past Met performances, with the promise of more to come. Five years later, the number of performances available through that service has climbed above 400 with no sign of abating. In 2012 it expanded its scope with the launch of an iPad app, at which time it was renamed Met Opera On Demand.

This is a service to which one subscribes annually, semiannually, or monthly, and there also are provisions that allow one to pay an a la carte fee to access a particular performance for a limited period of time. One can even sample the service for a week, completely free of charge. Of course, one needs to be properly equipped, technically, to access the service to optimal effect. The Met recommends a 2.0 GHz Dual Core processor, 1 GB of memory, 128 MB of video RAM, and Adobe Flash Player. (If all of that seems as incomprehensible as the plot to Der Ring des Nibelungen, fear not. There are all kinds of avenues by which these kinds of matters can be addressed and your questions can be answered.) If all of that is in order, then it's simply a matter of going to the Met site, signing in, clicking on <Watch and Listen>, and then finding the link to Opera On Demand. From that page, you can access the complete catalog of audio and video performances that are available. There is a separate icon of each individual performance, and by simply moving the cursor over the icon, one can view a list of the principal cast members and conductor, a very brief plot summary, and a few words explaining the historic and/or artistic significance of the performance at hand. With a simple click on <play> the performance begins in a matter of seconds.

The playback mechanism itself is a model of ingenuity and imagination; clearly a great deal of thought was given into making the experience both straightforward and satisfying. If one wants simply to listen to or watch the performance from start to finish, without interruptions or repetitions, one can just let it play without having to do anything at all. If one is interested in sampling particular moments from that performance, there is an index that roughly corresponds to the tracks one would find on a compact disk. An opera of fairly modest length like Tosca will have about thirty such chapters, while a longer work such as Gotterdammerung will have almost fifty. One can summon up any particular chapter of a performance simply by scrolling to it and clicking on it once it appears. The labeling of the chapters appears to be consistent across various performances of a given opera, which can be very helpful if there are particular moments you want to find. Most of the time a standout aria such as Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" will be clearly labeled as the title of that chapter. On the other hand, the first of Sieglinde's great arias, "Der Manner Sippe" from the first act of Die Walkure, is actually found within the tenth chapter labeled "Schlafts du, Gast." The fact that it is always found there, whether the performance is from 1940 or 2010, is an immense help to the average user of Met On Demand. And once a given chapter is playing, a time bar at the bottom of the screen allows you to jump instantly to any particular point in the chapter. As for the video performances, one can choose to view the image on a relatively small screen within the screen, which yields the clearest possible image and leaves the chapter scroll and all of the playback controls (play, pause, advance, repeat) in view. One can also opt to view the image full screen; although it tends to blur the image a bit, it is still how many prefer to do their viewing. One can also choose whether or not to have subtitles. Older Met telecasts offer the simple option of subtitles in English or none at all, while the HD simulcasts offer subtitles in several languages. In fact, the more recent HD simulcasts can be viewed with subtitles in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, or Russian--or with none at all.

Of course, what is most thrilling about Met On Demand is not the playbook tool bar or the subtitle options; it is the magnificent treasure trove of performances to which the public has been granted essentially unfettered access. The tenure of the Met's general manager Peter Gelb has not been without controversy, but if there is anything he has done that has generated universal praise and gratitude, it is his aggressive move to unlock these artistic riches that were withheld from the public for far too long. There are extensive broadcasts of past (and present) performances over Sirius XM, and a number of exemplary Met broadcasts can be purchased on officially sanctioned Sony CDs. But Met On Demand is by far the most exciting means by which we can explore this extraordinary legacy, whether for the sake of simple enjoyment, concerted study, or both.

As of this writing, the opera that is most generously offered by Met On Demand is Donizetti's comic masterpiece L'elisir d'amore. Nine different radio broadcasts are available there, ranging from 1949 to 2012, two telecasts, an HD simulcast, plus a 30th anniversary gala for Luciano Pavarotti which includes act two of the opera. Pavarotti's Nemorino was one of his most celebrated roles, so it's no particular surprise that of the thirteen different performances of "Una furtiva lagrima" that can be sampled with Met on Demand, seven of them feature Pavarotti. The earliest of those performances is from 1974 and the latest from 1998, and one expects there to be some fairly dramatic change in the sound over the course of those twenty-four years. In fact, there is scarcely any change in the sound at all, apart from a bit of darkening in the timbre and a slight coarsening in the line. For the most part, Pavarotti's essential sound as well as his artistic approach are untouched by time. For more elegant vocalism and nuanced expressiveness, one can hear two different performances by the incomparable Carlo Bergonzi, as well as lovely efforts by Ferrucio Tagliavini and Alfred Kraus. And the performance delivered by Matthew Polenzani for the HD simulcast is sublime in every way. But it's safe to say that the most memorable rendition of them all is the one delivered by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez in 2012, which was so rapturously received that he found himself compelled to sing an encore--an exceedingly rare occurrence at the Met. In the repeat, Florez did an alternate cadenza at the end which took him up to a luminous high C (rather than the customary high A), which touched off a euphoric two-minute cheering ovation that nearly forced a second encore! And thanks to Met On Demand, you can relive every second of this extraordinary event to your heart's content.

At this time, Met On Demand offers eight different radio broadcasts of Tosca, Die Walkure, La boheme, Carmen, and II barbiere di Siviglia, with multiple video performances of each opera as well. There are currently seven different broadcasts of Rigoletto, La traviata, Aida, Der fliegende Hollander, and Otello. It is overwhelming to think of all the wonders that await in these operas alone. Those seven Otello broadcasts, for instance, chronicle performances from 1940 to 2008, featuring the blazing performances of Giovanni Martinelli, Mario del Monaco, James McCracken, Jon Vickers (twice), Placido Domingo, and Johann Botha. With the greatest of ease, one can compare and contrast how each of these heroic tenors has contended with the intimidating demands of this role. This cavalcade of broadcasts also preserves for us performances of Elisabeth Rethberg, Victoria de los Angeles, Monserrat Caballe, Teresa Zyles-Gara, Kiri te Kanawa, Renee Fleming, and Aprile Millo, while the four telecasts feature Renata Scotto, Gilda Cruz-Romo, and Fleming (twice). In some ways, these sopranos are even more consistently impressive than the tenors with whom they are paired, although the contrasts between them are even more fascinating.

Of course, Met On Demand is about more than mainstream staples of the repertoire; one can find single performances of rarities like Massenet's Esclarmonde, Halevy's La juive, Meyerbeer's Le prophete, Bellini's Il pirata, and Thomas's Mignon, to name a few. It is somewhat disconcerting that one finds only one radio broadcast presented of operas like Verdi's Nabucco, Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, or Berlioz's Les Troyens. One finds at least one video offering of each opera as well, but the numbers still don't quite make sense. One wishes it were possible to eliminate at least a few performances that seem a bit superfluous if it would make room for more offerings of interest. For instance, Met On Demand offers six radio broadcasts, a telecast, and an HD simulcast of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. That exceeds the offerings of Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlo, Macbeth, and Il trovatore, which most people would argue as being even more significant works in Met history.

There are outright omissions that remain frustrating. Some can be explained away by copyright, which is surely the explanation why not a single radio broadcast is offered of Puccini's Turandot or Il trittico, although other twentieth century works like Wozzeck, Lulu, Moses and Aaron, The Great Gatsby, and Vanessa are there. What is still baffling is the continued absence of Boris Godunov and The Bartered Bride among the broadcast offerings, a complaint voiced in this column back in 2009. At least we now have a telecast of the latter with the delightful Teresa Stratas and an HD simulcast of the former featuring a superb performance by Rene Pape. Nonetheless, Met On Demand users remain deprived of the opportunity to experience the nobility of Marti Talvela, the beauty of Ezio Pinza, or the unsurpassed greatness of the legendary Alexander Kipnis in the role of Boris.

One might also wish that the choice of casts offered up even more variety. The aforementioned Otello broadcasts are admirably varied, as is the case with most of the most popular operas on the service. But why should three of the six Lucia di Lammermoor radio broadcasts feature Joan Sutherland, no matter how glorious her singing--especially if a Met legend like Lily Pons, with more Lucia radio broadcasts than anyone, is crowded out of the field altogether? Whatever one might think of her canary-like performances (or those of Patrice Munsel or Roberta Peters, who also starred in multiple broadcasts of the opera), the fact remains that they represent an important part of recent opera history and were once the norm in this repertoire. If there is room for the mostly wretched performance featuring Maria Callas (her one and only Met broadcast), then there should be room for Pons, whatever disdain some might feel about such a performance. Met On Demand needs to be faithful to the historical legacy with which it is entrusted. Toward that end, one might also wish that the offerings didn't neglect the earliest years of Met broadcasts. As of this writing, only 4 of 268 radio broadcasts are from before 1940, which does not seem right. The earliest broadcasts are preserved in more primitive sound, but many opera fans are prepared to tolerate those kind of hindrances for the sake of the historic importance of the broadcast itself. Moreover, Met On Demand offers only complete performances thus far, which robs us of the opportunity to experience Kirsten Flagstad's transcendent Met debut in 1935 in the role of Sieglinde, or other partially preserved broadcasts offering such elusive treasures as the Donna Anna and Don Ottavio of Rosa Ponselle and Tito Schipa in Mozart's Don Giovanni, or the beloved Lucrezia Bori's farewell to the Met in Manon.

Enough! Lest we fall further into a trap of ingratitude from which there is no escape, it is important to acknowledge that Met On Demand is a godsend for any opera fan who wishes to explore the greatest recorded legacy of the world's greatest opera house. It is also a service that no other opera house has come close to duplicating. And with a monthly subscription fee of $15 (unchanged since the service was launched)--roughly the cost of a full-price CD recording--it offers untold musical riches at an astonishingly reasonable price. Anyone with a serious interest in great singing needs to explore what it has to offer.
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Author:Berg, Gregory
Publication:Journal of Singing
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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