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The Duress of Watching DVDs Instead of Live Performances

March 25, 2010

sarah.jpegLast week, while preparing to write my weekly column for the New York Times about San Francisco Ballet's production of John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid, I watched a DVD of a recent performance of the work which had been recorded at the Hamburg Ballet last November.

The Ballet's press office was kind to let me have access to the recording. I couldn't really have done my piece without seeing what the ballet was like, my deadline preceded the ballet's opening so I couldn't view an actual performance and Mr. Neumeier would not let me attend a rehearsal. So the DVD was the best available resource under the circumstances.

Attending a live performances is of course different to watching a DVD. But I think they can serve as a tool for making certain kinds of analytical/critical comments in a feature article or even a trend/opinion piece -- though absolutely not a full-scale review -- if the following criterion are met:

1. The critic mentions that he/she viewed a DVD in the article.

2. The critic ascertains from the artist / company how much has changed in the production since the recording was made.

3. The critic refrains from making comments about elements of the DVD (such as cast members' performances) that do not remain relatively stable from night to night.

4. The quality of the DVD is high.

I was amazed at how similar last night's performance of The Little Mermaid, which I saw at the War Memorial Opera House with Sarah Van Patten in the title role, was in comparison to the DVD. The quality of the dancing was of course different -- Van Patten is a softer, less angular mermaid than the ballerina whom I saw perform the role in the Hamburg DVD. Funnily enough, though, the comments I'd made in my article about the bleakness and darkness of the work turned out to be spot on. Actually, the ballet is probably one of the most depressing works of art I've ever seen on the stage. Ballets don't tend to give people nightmares, but I think this one is capable of doing so.

I don't mean to encourage people who write about the arts to make judgments about work based on secondary materials. All I'm saying is that as recording techniques improve, digital recordings can provide an excellent resource to journalists on deadline. You just have to be a bit careful about how you use them.


  • Back when I subscribed to the Metropolitan Opera (we are talking about 25 years ago), the calendar for the full season always marked the performances at which video capture would be taking place (as they now indicate the HD events). The original motivation was that the stage lighting for video would always be much brighter than for other performances. I am sure the video equipment has improved since then; but I would guess that staging still has to make concessions for "live" recording.

    This is one major problem with "virtual opera." How important it is depends on the extent to which the staging involves subtleties that may elude much of the audience, let alone any capture technology. More important, however, is the "point of view" problem: Video fixes your point(s) of view once and for all. Viewing the video more than one can only reinforce a rote memory. The only attempt to compensate for this problem was the multi-window approach taken during the HD transmission of Tristan und Isolde, which may not have solved the entire problem but resulted in
    the most viable alternative to being there
    that I have ever encountered.

    I appreciate how a DVD can prepare one to view a work one has not previously seen. My own experience is that any orientation is better than none at all. However, for the most part my personal DVD consumption is restricted to works I already know, basically because they help to refresh my "being there" memories. This is the way I feel about a video called
    The Ballets Russes at the Mariinsky
    . Nevertheless, whenever I have the opportunity to "do some homework" before attending a performance, I try to take advantage of it; and I apply that rule to both CD and DVD recordings.

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At March 25, 2010 at 12:53 PM  

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