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Don Giovanni Up Close

April 15, 2008

The last time I caught a screening of a San Francisco Opera production, I wasn't very impressed. I was present at the company's inaugural simulcast screening of Madama Butterfly a couple of years ago. It was a festive, atmospheric affair to be sure: While audiences watched the show from inside the War Memorial Opera House, 8,000 others gathered on a big, grassy plaza across the street to watch a live broadcast of the opera for free. Pretty red lanterns and a festival spirit complete with wine and picnics made for an enjoyable evening.

But the screening itself left much to be desired. Crudely edited and packed with unflattering close-ups of the leading lady's triple chins, the film made suspending one's disbelief a real challenge.

I'm happy to report that the company's forays into screening operas have come a long way since then. This morning, I went to San Francisco's historic Castro movie theatre to catch a screening of Mozart's Don Giovanni. A departure from delivering simulcasts in tandem with live performances, the company recently launched a series of screenings of previously-recorded performances. This method of making the experience of going to the opera available to many more people is, in my opinion, much more satisfying than watching a simulcast. Thanks to careful, creative editing, good quality sound, and high definition images, Mozart's opera sprang to life on screen.

I was particularly impressed with the sensitivity of the performances witnessed at such close range. The Commendatore (Kristinn Sigmundsson) looked like he was in agony when he was dying; Twyla Robinson's Donna Elvira sassed as much as she seethed; As Don G, Mariusz Kwiecien didn't overdo the lothario act.

Another thing I loved about SF Opera's collaboration with film production company, The Bigger Picture, is the way in which the cameras allow us to see into the orchestra pit during the overture. It was such fun to see conductor Donald Runnicles at close range in his purple waistcoat, waving his arms and mane of white hair infront of a wobbling music stand. It was equally thrilling to get such a birds-eye view of all the instrumentalists at work too. Audience members are never privy to these kinds of details while sitting in the opera house.

Finally, it was interesting to see how the cinema audience reacted to the film. Mostly made up of elderly people and a few school groups, the audience behaved somewhat differently to the on-screen audience that could be heard responding to the live show beyond the edges of the camera lens. The sounds of wild applause heard on screen after the big arias were not matched in the cinema today. Yet while clapping seemed to be off-limits, people in the movie theatre still laughed heartily at the opera's many humorous moments.

Other operas screened so far in the series include Puccini's La Rondine, and Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah. Next up, funnily enough, is ye olde Madama Butterfly on April 21. I might have to go along just to see if this production fares better in edited mode rather than witnessed via simulcast.

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