I Puritani (The Puritans)
I Puritani was staged by the New York Metropolitan Opera at a Saturday matinee on January 6, 2007. This was a special performance because it was broadcast live, in Italian with English subtitles, to movie theaters around the world and recorded in high-definition video. For a general discussion of this production, see my journal review of the Blu-ray disc that was eventually published.
I saw the matinee performance in four different versions:
- First I saw the "HD Live'' broadcast at a Tinseltown movie theater in Plano, Texas.
- Next I saw it in HDTV on February 18, 2007 on Channel 13, the Public Broadcasting System station in Dallas, Texas.
- Late in 2007, Deutsche Grammophon came out with the show on DVD (catalog number B0010491-09).
- Finally, in November 2008, Deutsche Grammophon released the show in a Blu-ray HDVD.
The Tinseltown broadcast was my first experience with a movie screen rendition of an opera. It was also my introduction to bel canto opera.
The Tinseltown Experience
My Tinseltown introduction to I Puritani is worth relating in some detail. The mere idea was disorienting: a broadcast of live opera at the same venue where I just could have seen at mid-night The Texas Chain Saw Torture Chamber. First I drove on the windswept Interstate highway past all the fast-food joints and humongous category-killing retail stores. I entered the vast lifeless lot with its cracked asphalt parking surfaces and paper cups blowing about. Then I approached and entered the ugliest building ever built outside the Gulag--a giant concrete-slab box pimped out with plywood trim painted in gritty, lurid pastels. Inside, I made my way through a gloomy, cavernous lobby filled with posters of air-brushed fantasy women representing the seven deadly perversions. And then there was the stench of popcorn oil and the sensation of my shoes meeting something sticky on the floor. It was winter, but there were teenage girls loitering with their navels exposed.
Here I was going to the Met! I could pick out my fellow opera fans--most of them had osteoporosis, and one of them with a walker was creeping across the floor like a snail. And, oh yes, there was a gent with jacket and tie. Slowly the cattle found their way through the chute leading into a narrow room with stadium seating. I looked up and there were scores of pale, thin figures waiting motionlessly for the show to begin. The Met had found something exceeding rare: fervent pent-up demand from folks loaded with money.
A speaker appeared and greeted everyone, but few could understand her because the local mike didn't work right and most of the audience was hard-of-hearing. The show began. Now live opera is exciting if for no other reason than suspense whether the singers will remember their lines and not crack their voices. The Tinseltown live performance was even more exciting, because when the picture went black or the sound turned to static for 10 minutes, you missed 10 minutes of the show for good.
But most of the time, both an image and sound were present. The big screen was full of a picture, but it was not a high-definition picture by any definition. The images were soft and grainy, and there was some kind of big-screen artifact vaguely apparent from time to time. The colors were dull and washed out from lack of sufficient light coming from the projector. I still don't know exactly what I was seeing. But I read reports in the press that the picture used in at least some of the movie locations came from the same projection system used by the theater to advertise the popcorn and urge the customers to use the waste cans. I don't know if this horrible report was true, but it does seem consistent with what I saw.
In contrast to the gloomy picture, the sound was bold and enveloping. The quality was not what you hear at home with high-end audio equipment; but it was pretty good, especially when compared to the fuzziness on the screen.
In spite of the smelly theater, service interruptions, and the weak picture, there did remain a nice residue of pleasure from this experience. I saw a remarkably beautiful young woman and other fine singers performing live in New York. And even if the quality was disappointing, the sheer size of the picture was engaging. You got an idea how glorious the thing was to those lucky enough to see it live in New York.
Was this worth $18? Well, if you've been on a desert island eating coconuts for 20 years, the first can of cat food that washes up on the shore will probably taste pretty good. A few weeks later, I paid another $18 to see the Met production of Eugene Onegin at Tinseltown. After seeing Eugene Onegin, which was as problematic as the I Puritani had been, I lost interest in opera at the movies.
(Update. After a rocky start, the Met did make a significant success of showing operas in movie houses, and other opera houses followed suit. But I just hate the smell of popcorn oil, and I've rarely attended movie-house opera shows since my disappointment at Tinseltown.)
The Public Broadcast System Experience
I guessed correctly that the Met would have a high-definition record of the I Puritani show available for further broadcast. And sure enough, it was shown a few weeks later on Channel 13, the Dallas PBS station. By talking to my spy at the station, I got good intelligence on when they would air it. I saw the record, in 1080i, at the appointed time. This was, I felt, one of the best things I ever saw on television (along with the Opus Arte high-definition programs that PBS was running about the same time). The pictures were radiantly clear, vivid, rich, and free of artifacts. The sound was low, but I was able to turn it up to match the picture experience.
Alas, I doubt that many other people saw this grand television event. It was hardly publicized. A few weeks later, I plotted to see the PBS showing of the Met's Eugene Onegin. There was a slight technical problem with the Onegin on PBS. An intermission followed Act 1. After the intermission, PBS showed Act I again, and Act II never aired. I called about 6 numbers at the station (it was a weekend) and frantically gave warning to all computers connected to their elaborate telephone menu. On Monday, an engineer from the station called to apologize for the blooper. Someone had programmed the same file on the hard drive to play twice. The engineer offered to let me come to the station and see the show. And then he confided in me: I was the only person to report that they had dropped half the opera.
(Update. PBS continued to show HD operas from time to time. Many fine-arts fans have their TV service connected their home theaters. Often they have the ability to to record a program to replay later. According to a user report on the AVScience Forum, a recording of I Puritani made from a PBS broadcast was softer than the Blu-ray disc later released (and described below). Another drawback to this form of distribution is that broadcasts provide only two channel sound. To get 5.1 or 7.1 sound, you have to seek media especially designed for home theaters.)
The DVD Experience
After the disappointing experience at the movies and the exhilarating experience of seeing the Netrebko I Puritani in real high-definition television on PBS, I eagerly awaited getting an HDVD from the Met. But Deutsche Grammophon and the Met first released this in DVD. Here are comments on the DVD:
- Video. The DVD met the NTSC television picture standard. It did look better than the picture the Met gave the public at Tinseltown. I got reports that it looked as good on a high-end disc player as a DVD can get. I saw for myself that this would have been an excellent disc in 2005, but this was not high-definition.
- Sound. The DVD had dts digital 5.1 sound. The sound was better than the picture. But it wasn't as pleasing to me as the Dolby TrueHD sound I was used to.
- Sets and costumes. The mise-en-scène looked fine on the small HDTV screen when I saw the PBS show. In the DVD, the costumes worn by Netrebko and the other main singers were acceptable. But the sets and costumes for the chorus looked shopworn.
- Program design. When this was shown live, the producer decided to provide filler interviews at the intermissions. This was probably necessary to keep the patrons from wandering around the sleazy theaters and getting out of the opera mood. Out of laziness, I guess, the Met left all this interview filler on the DVD where it destroys the opera mood in your home theater.
- Subtitles. As on many DVDs, the subtitles were crudely rendered with amateurish-looking fonts.
- It took two discs to record all the material on DVD.
The Blu-ray Real Deal
Finally DG and the Met released the Netrebko 2007 I Puritani in Blu-ray on November 17, 2008. It was a vastly better product than the DVD:
- Video. The picture was gorgeous throughout. Everything looked so pretty! There was a warm "painterly'' patina to the picture. Still, on my 52'' LCD display, therewas enough light so that you could enjoy the show (things did not seem dim). I saw little motion blur and noticed no softness of focus or any other distracting artifact. This picture rendered the DVD obsolete.
- Sound. There was a choice between dts-HD 5.1 or PCM 5.1. This was a step up from the DVD and matched the bright picture.
- Sets and costumes. High-definition reveaed the true beauty of the costumes worn by the stars. In particular, I could see all the glorious details in Elvira's dresses. In the DVD version, I noticed that the sets and some costumes seemed old. But I didn't notice this at all in the Blu-ray version (except that some of the firearms looked like weapons made many years after Cromwell's time). I think the increase in clarity of the rendering of the singers faces commands your attention: any minor shortcomings revealed by HD in sets or costumes goes unnoticed.
- Program design. The live-show filler used between the acts was trimmed back to the highlights from the two interviews granted by Netrebko while waiting to go back on stage. It's not hard to push the button on the remote if you want to skip this. I feel that seeing this little bit of Netrebko during the break is more impressive than distracting. Netrebko is so unassuming, down-to-earth, charming, generous, and brave to do this while preparing to go back on stage! The producer moved the rest of the intermission filler--mostly interviews with the late Beverly Sills--to the bonus section. There it does no harm, and I noted that all the bonus material is in HD. (Too many HDVD titles being released at the time had bonus material in SD, which degraded the package.)
- Subtitles. The subtitles were rendered in sharp, clear fonts and appeared to be quite accurate. This was a big improvement over the DVD.
- The single disc was elegant. Menu selections worked reasonably well.
Met Player Streaming Download
In October 2008, the Met started its "Met Player " Internet video broadcast service, and the 2007 I Puritani was one of the 13 high-definition titles initially offered. Did this offering qualify to be a HDVD (as in "high-definition video download'') of I Puritani? No. The Met Player product had only stereo sound. I
(Update. It's now early 2016, and nobody has come up yet with file streaming technology offering surround sound in a way that will be competitive with the Blu-ray optical disc.)
Home theater fans believe the eye deserves to be ravished the same as the ear. The Netrebko 2007 I Puritani in Blu-ray accomplishes this mission. It seems it will still be sometime before downloading or any other technology can match the quality of the Blu-ray disc in showing fine-arts videos.
March 4, 2016.