By Bob Bernard
The February 29, 2020 live telecast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Handel’s Agrippina showcased the Met’s ability to display real-time, selected full-screen images to its 400,000 theater viewers around the world.
Video Director David Halvorson and his team of some twenty-five specialists did this so smoothly because they had proactively scripted their camera plans based upon their study and review of the prior six performances in Agrippina’s performance run.
As the Met's technical personnel pull this off routinely, they stand on the shoulders of the early work pioneered by Dr. Brian Large, film director extraordinaire.
For many of us, we first enjoyed Dr. Large’s work early in 1985 when he recorded the historic January 3 telecast of the Met’s production of Verdi’s Aida. This "farewell to opera" of soprano Leontyne Price was extraordinarily moving. In her Act 3 aria "O Patria Mia," she concluded with an (apparently) effortless high C that she sustained for twelve seconds. The ensuing applause of three minutes and eight seconds remains a record for the Met.
Then, that same year, for the December 14 Met performance of Le nozze di Figaro, one scene in particular stood out. The opera was drawing to a close, and, in short order, the cameras recorded for all time …
- As the duplicity of Sir Thomas Allen’s Count Almaviva was revealed, Sir Thomas’ eyes rolled about his head, as if seeking to flee the scene independently of his body.
- The longest pregnant pause ever in an operatic performance followed (a full ten seconds, the tension in the theater becoming palpable), before the release afforded by the Count’s plea: “Contessa, perdono …. “
- Then, Carol Vaness (the Countess), captured with a positively beatific expression on her face --- and here we cite the words of Salieri from the movie Amadeus --- "sang the music of true forgiveness," as the now penitent Count, daring not to look upward, embraced her arm as a lifeline to absolution.
This production of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, additionally bolstered with cast members Ruggero Raimondi, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, Michel Sénéchal, and Dawn Upshaw, was one of the strongest Figaros ever staged, but was still just another day at the office for Dr. Large.
Dr. Large, having now directed the filming of over six hundred fine arts films in his career, began with the BBC in 1965, having earned doctorate degrees in both Music and Philosophy from the University of London as prologue. A decade later, Wolfgang Wagner invited him to Bayreuth to film the major Wagner (non-Ring) operas: Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Der Fliegende Holländer, and Lohengrin, all for television.
Building upon the above, a mountaintop experience ensued in the early summer of 1980. The Boulez-Chéreau Centenary Ring had debuted, of course, in 1976 and since then, with the passing of these four years, the initial fierce disagreement over its merits had ameliorated into the realization that this was a production that should be preserved on film. Dr. Large was accorded unprecedented resources, liberties and time with which to do this.
Provided with over one hundred technicians and a full complement of cameras and lighting stands, Dr. Large was allowed to remove (temporarily, of course) rows of seats from the theatre, so that optimum lighting and unrestricted sight lines could be established for the filming. The rehearsal period became a cooperative enterprise, involving cast, pianists, Boulez, Chéreau, and Large.
Now with Dr. Large equipped with his collection of notes and marked-up scores from the piano rehearsals, the filming of each act of the four operas proceeded like this:
- One day would be spent with the lighting technicians and cameramen, correlating the proposed filming sequence to every detail of each scene.
- Another day was then devoted to a full dress rehearsal, performed solely for evaluating and modifying the filming plan
- Finally, the act at hand was then performed and filmed without stop, accepting any accidental imperfections, and thus recording for posterity a close approximation of a true theater experience for future television audiences.
Here, from Act one of Die Walküre, Peter Hofmann’s Siegmund and Jeannine Altmeyer’s Sieglinde:
This complete Ring Cycle found its way to television audiences around the world, introducing Wagner’s Ring to a greatly expanded audience and earning Dr. Large the Royal Television Society’s accolade as Best Television Director for 1981.
1990 proved to be a banner year for Dr. Large. He directed the first Three Tenors Concert with Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti at the historic Terme di Caraculla in Rome and moved on from there to record Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the Met. The Wagner was broadcast on PBS and became the most widely viewed performance of the Ring Cycle in history.
Although the televising of concerts and galas do not afford Dr. Large the same proportion of striking photo ops as operas typically do, his film direction always evidences a balanced ratio between close-ups, full and partial stage shots, and reaction shots, as well as a tasteful use of overlaps and dissolves. Here are two examples from his 1993 collaboration with Peter Gelb (as producer, then still with Sony as head of Classical Recordings), Dvořák in Prague for Czech TV. Dr. Large’s love for the city and reverence for the music are manifest in this DVD. He did post-graduate studies at the University of Prague and wrote biographical books on Czech composers Bohuslav Martinů and Bedřich Smetana.
Dr. Large filmed the world premiere of Il Postino for LA Opera in 2010, returned in the following March for some preliminary editing, and was here again in August to finish the job. LA Opera benefited from the generosity of (then) LA Opera Board Member Moshe Barkat, President of Modern Videofilm, one of the prominent post-production (i.e. editing) companies in Burbank. Mr. Barkat made the extraordinary, in-kind contribution of the use of facility, equipment, and staff --- all at no cost --- for all projects involving Dr. Large and either LA Opera or the LA Phil for several years.
Self-effacing to a fault, Mr. Barkat downplayed the use of his company for this task: “We like having you here, so that we can run some quality through the equipment for a change!” Indeed, Editing Room #3 contained residual memorabilia associated with Real Women Have Curves and Desperate Housewives.
The editing process for Il Postino was a three-man project: Dr. Large calling the shots and Managing Editor Richard Russel at the keyboards and intercom in Editing Room #3, along with a staff member in the storage/playback room, mounting whichever film reel was called for onto a playback machine. This post-production procedure was the polar opposite of that employed for the Bayreuth Centenary Ring, being primarily reactive, rather than proactive.
The filming of Il Postino in September 2010 included three complete performances --- two regular and one of a rehearsal, each with five cameras in operation. The scene-by-scene editing became the reiterative riding of a treadmill of performance selection, camera choice, cropping, cross-cutting, dissolves, fade-outs, and synchronization. Dr. Large’s perseverance was fueled by his belief that this would be the only time that Il Postino would ever be filmed (the DVD is available on Amazon)
We now look forward to the 2020-21 season Met HD opener of Michael Mayer’s production of Verdi’s Aida. The principals will be Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, and Piotr Beczala. The conductor will be Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, taking the podium on October 10 for his first opening night performance as Met Music Director.
David Halvorson’s technical crew – standing on the shoulders of Dr. Brian Large - will deliver another up-close viewing treat for the around-the-world audience.