MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Sound of an Ending

Yesterday I was among the legions of opera fans around the world taking for granted the high-tech synchronization that makes the Met’s live performances in HD possible. During this performance of Massenet’s Werther, I noticed a couple of slightly ominous flickerings on the screen — subliminal heralds of the désastre to come.

And then the unthinkable happened: at the opera’s emotional climax, as Charlotte tries to comfort the dying Werther — who has finally acted on his threat to commit suicide — the audio feed also died. (I’m not sure how widespread the problem was, but it apparently affected many theaters around the U.S. at least.) It died at the worst possible moment. Had this occurred, say, during Albert’s aria or the drinking music at the inn, that would have been annoyingly disruptive enough. But in these crucial final minutes, the impact was devastating. On a larger scale, this was more like reaching the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung, only to have the plug pulled out. Even if the sound were to have been restored, Massenet’s spell had already been broken — and it quickly became apparent there would be no Audio ex machina.

I even imagined a sardonic director deliberately choosing this moment to expose us to a cruel new genre of performance art in which the audience is brought to the precipice and then plunged into silence at the moment of cathartic payoff, left with visual cues and English surtitles alone to which to cling like a life raft. The graphic image of Werther’s blood-spattered wall became especially searing. (Of course this would have required a coup deposing Richard Eyre, the actual director who had so sensitively shaped Massenet’s most beautiful opera up to this point.)

This was the aesthetic opposite of the Stendhal syndrome. A colleague with whom I attended the cinemacast — the critic Roger Downey — coined the term “opus interruptus.” (I didn’t venture to correct this with “opus interruptum,” which would have been unforgivably pedantic — not to mention far less effective than Roger’s invention.)

So, with a little grammatical poetic license, “opus interruptus” it is. We both experienced a distinct sense of emotional disorientation which the genre of opera intensifies to the maximum. This has little to do with narrative fulfillment, with the compulsion to get to the end of the story that Scheherazade uses as her secret weapon. It’s about the investment of emotional energy through Massenet’s careful pacing of musical characterizations and events. Suddenly this was denied the resolution we know must be there in the music: a metaphorical cadence, perhaps.

And modern technology simply can’t “patch” that up.

At any rate, the Met has provided a link to the full final scene — ironic “Noels” and all – here.

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: aesthetics, Metropolitan Opera, technology

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Brian says:

    At least, the Met has put the entire final scene on its website.


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