Sunday, January 18, 2009

Is Barbara Willis Sweete Destroying the Met HD Program?

Barbara Willis Sweete, Transmission Director for the Met HD program, has repeatedly bungled the transmission of Met operas. I have already written about last season's disastrous filming of Tristan und Isolde. This year's Damnation of Faust is another disaster.

Berlioz's Faust is an odd, episodic opera - really poor structurally, but with wonderful music. The Met brought in Robert Lepage to design the production and he made the opera work. It was full of wows - well, at least we presume they were wows, as Sweete did all she could to destroy the effects Lepage worked so hard to produce.

Lepage made great use of ropes (with harnesses hidden under clothing). At one point a row of soldiers march up the gridwork on stage, mime dying, and are lowered into the laps of women below, only to revive, march up the wall again, and repeat. It was a moving and jaw-dropping effect - I think. We mostly saw close-ups.

Sweete and the rest of the videography team over-use close-ups. Singers tend to sweat, and a giant screen filled with a close-up of their face is not always a pleasant image. There is also much too much camera movement, zooming in, panning, pulling back, changing cameras. It is all very distracting, and very little of it is effective. It's as if Sweete is trying to compete with Lepage in artiness... but the videography should aim to enhance the production, not compete with it.

We are now in the third season of the Metropolitan Opera's Met HD series. I don't recall the first season having these video problems. In particular, I recall thinking during Il Trittico that the film experience was like hovering above the fifth row - better than the best seat in the house. That's what the transmission director should aim for.

The experience of opera is about a state of concentration that opera makes possible. The orchestration, singing, plot, iconography, set, costumes, lighting and personalities all hit the senses of the audience is a way that is unique to opera. To achieve the optimum concentration, I like to attend operas in an unstressed, well-rested frame of mind; I don't drink alchohol beforehand; and I eat a light, low-carb meal followed by an espresso. When fully engaged I can attain that wonderful state, even in cinema transmissions... But not when filtered through distracting faux-arty video direction.

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8 comments:

toms said...

RIGHT ON!!! Willis Sweete should be sent back to the world of small art films, and never be let anywhere near dance or choreography. She just doesn't get it. Yet the Met has seen fit to assign all the "spectaculars" to her. If only she undertood live theatre and the tools that the dirctor, choreographer and designers use to direct the focus of the audience. I can't believe it was Mark Morris who placed the cameraman in full view! Regardless of the destruction visited on the HD audience, how can the Met allow such indignities to be suffered by the live audience?

toms said...

PS: It was nice to be back in the hands of the master, Brian Large, for the transmission of La Rondine.

verushka said...

Absolutely right... and what about Gary Halvorson?? He ruined the Live in HD Aida, especially the ballet, with a bunch of MTV-ish short cuts, close-ups, pans, and dissolves... and I say that having grown up with MTV, the first of the MTV generations!

It's just that opera is NOT music video, and it's NOT film, and it's NOT just concert music... opera is it's OWN ART FORM and needs to be understood and broadcast as such. It's more akin to a widescreen musical experience, live -- and that's how it should be filmed, with JUDICIOUS use of close-ups, but with plenty of medium and long shots so we can see what's happening on the rest of the stage.

We need Met Live in HD directors who GET THAT. Sweete and Halvorson clearly DON'T! It's like they're determined to take a "widescreen" experience and butcher it into a "pan and scan" experience. Wrong, wrong, WRONG!!

Clearly, they don't realize they are doing exactly what Scorsese and Pollack say in that TCM short about letterboxing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K04vMdjQogQ): they're re-directing (and butchering) the composer's original vision of the opera! No, no, no! There's a difference between interpretation (staging, singing, etc.) and re-directing, visually. It's a crime what Sweete and Halvorson do to these operas.

Catherine said...

Good grief. Two years on and it's still too many close-ups, too many weird angles, too much of... too much. I was nauseous by the end.

By gawd, yes, The Met needs to hire someone who respects the artform and understands the material & its itinerant dramatic demands.

ovrtke said...

So! One of you couch critics can do better? Hmmmmmm! I think, nay, I know not. And to the article writer, it's COULD, not COLD!!

ovrtke said...

Well theater couch critics! One of you can do better? I think, nay, know not! And to the article writer, the word is COULD, not COLD!

Anonymous said...

Don Giovanni, an excellent production, was marred by the twitch Fingers of Willis West. She bungled Tristan, improved in the "..Golden West." She struck out in Don Giovanni, yet again. She has no sense of the musical arc. Twitch Fingers break up the duet and sextet scenes. She cannot stand fuidity. Attention Deficit; taking the Met down to academic film theory Experiment. To her credit she doesn't seem to crawl into the singers mouth to such on epiglotis like Gary.

Escalus said...

Tannhauser was nearly normal. Must gave remembered to take ritalin. Still very unfortunate because she bungled Tristtan und Isolde so badly we can!'t have the DVDs release