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LA Opera’s Simon Boccanegra: the view from — and of — the Tweet Seats

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra opens today, with Placido Domingo in the title role of pirate turned Doge of Genoa.   As previously mentioned, I was offered one of LA Opera’s inaugural “tweet seats” for last Wednesday’s final dress rehearsal.  Normally, I wouldn’t be writing about a rehearsal at all, let alone doing so while the action was occurring; however, the whole point of the exercise was to do just that.

So here’s how it went, one both sides of the proscenium:

On the stage:  the usual opera stuff (death, intrigue, love, secrets, and more death) done quite well

I know that this wasn’t truly a performance, it was a rehearsal, so take everything I say with the proverbial grain of salt.  Indeed, we were warned in writing and via public address system:

“Remember that this is a dress rehearsal. There may be cast substitutions, singers holding back and saving their voices for opening night, the production may stop while the director/technicians fix or change something, lighting may be different, etc…”

As it turned out, there was no stop in the action; the “performance” was seamless from beginning to end, and if this were part of the regular run of shows instead of a rehearsal, I don’t think anyone in the nearly capacity crowd would have complained much, if at all.  It was an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera, with only marginal things keeping me from praising it even more.

Finale of Act 3:  The Death of the Doge

The role of the Doge is notable for being Mr. Domingo’s first official one as a baritone.  As such, he may not be some people’s ideal Simon Boccanegra, but he was certainly a convincing one.  His voice does not carry the same deep resonance as that of other baritones,  but it now has a darker quality than one would have experienced from him ten years ago, without losing any of the richness for which Mr. Domingo is famous.  This became most evident in the climax of the Council Chamber scene (“Ecco la spada . . . In te risiede”), as the Doge compels Paolo into cursing the unknown traitor — which turns out to be Paolo himself.   Mr. Domingo had no trouble imparting onto the notes a menacing quality that  matched the intensity of the moment.  In addition, Mr. Domingo continues to bring nuance to his acting that was difficult for any of the others in the cast to match.  Whether in more subtle actions during duets or trios, or in the startling suddenness of his character’s death, he brings much more to a scene than his stellar voice.  Overall, it was a pleasure to watch and hear.

The rest of the cast more than held their own.  Standing out was Vitalij Kowaljow as an excellent Jacopo Fiesco, singing with a seemingly effortless grandeur; he definitely captured the audience’s attention as evidenced in the tweets during the show, the discussions during intermission,  and the enthusiastic applause he received at curtain call.  Ana Maria Martinez handled her opening aria (“Come in quest’ora bruna”) with fearless aplomb, showing off both her technical precision  and incredibly sensitive touch; as the night wore on, her voice loosened up to give her tone even more bloom.   Paolo Gavanelli (Paolo) and Robert Pomakov (Pietro) each sang capably.  If anyone seemed to be holding back, it was Stefano Secco as Gabriele Adorno:  his moderate tenor often got overwhelmed in the First Act, came to life during his big moments in Act 2 before sounding like he was tiring by the time he appeared again in Act 3.   James Conlon conducted the orchestra, coaxing some beautiful playing throughout.  Though some are quick to criticize the acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (especially compared to its magnificent neighbor, Walt Disney Concert Hall), I’ve never thought it was particularly bad, and on Wednesday night, singers and instrumentalists could all be heard with good transparency and balance, one never overwhelming the other.

The production, on loan from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was most notable for a classically-themed set that provided a handsome frame for the entire opera’s action .  Duane Schuler’s high-contrast lighting design starkly underlined each scene to help maximize the drama, though it could sometimes overwhelm more static moments (too dark in the prologue, too bright in the opening of Act 1).  Elijah Moshinsky’s direction was best and most interesting when there were more people on stage to manage:  most of the time, he kept things moving; however, during the first scene of Act 1, he was content to let his singers merely stand and sing; combined with the stark lighting and sparse staging, this left his cast seemingly exposed, which they were thankfully able to overcome.

In the seats:  knowing when to pick your moments

The role of official tweet seater is loosely defined.  Your primary responsibility:  share the on-stage goings on with the world as much or as little as you want, in whatever way you deem most appropriate.  Twitter?  Absolutely.  Blogging?  Sure.  Facebook? Go for it.  Anything typed out was fair game, pictures were allowed as long as the flash was turned off, and video was strictly forbidden.  There were ten of us who showed up, coming from a variety of backgrounds:  at one end of the spectrum was Katherine Talley, a professional singer; on the other was Katie B of YelpLA, social media professional attending her very first opera.

Vitalij Kowaljow: Scheming rival or Sith Lord (with apologies to Beverly Reynolds for poaching her reference)

We were generously given three entire rows in the back of the Loge section, giving us a great view of the stage while ensuring that no one would be sitting behind us and be distracted by the light coming from our mobile devices.  In addition, LA Opera’s Communications Manager, Shannita Williams, presciently noted that using social media is an inherently solitary endeavor and she wasn’t sure if people would want to spread out or if we’d actually want to tweet sitting next to each other.  In the end, there was a mixed bag of some tweeters clustered together while others stayed physically isolated.  I wanted to sit on the aisle, and ended up in the last row directly behind Beverly Reynolds (publisher of the blog, Style [Not Fashion] and self-professed “Feminist, gamer, woman about town, general ne’er-do-well) and next to a group of about five other women.

As I tweeted at the time, the lights hadn’t yet dimmed and we were already getting some funny looks from ushers and other patrons; Beverly’s DSLR camera drew some particularly skeptical looks.  Ms. Williams was able to quickly quell any disagreements from the house staff, and during the actual performance there were more distractions (coughing, talking, bottle being dropped, cell phone alarm going off) coming from the rest of the audience as from us tweet seaters.

When the performance began and everyone settled in, it was quite fascinating to see when people chose to make comments and on what they chose to comment about.  Some gave a sort of play-by-play, others quoted the English supertitles, while still others gave reactions; I did a little of everything.  All of us tried to take pictures, but even with decent quality cell phone cameras, the low lighting and no flash didn’t lead to very many great shots.  The most amusing exchange came when someone compared the various costumes on stage to those from the Star Wars universe.

The challenge for me proved to be attempting to work my cell phone without missing the action on stage.  The static action during the first scene in Act 1 —  perfect for tweeting.  The Council Chamber scene — not so much.  If WiFi had been available, I could have used my non-3G iPad and been more efficient, but alas, no dice.

Regardless of what was being transmitted by each of us individually, it served the purpose of sharing the immediacy of the event with the world.  Others in attendance also used the same hashtag (#LAOBoccanegra) to post their own comments, as did Ms. Williams from backstage.  Non-attendees posted comments of their own, engaging in virtual dialogue with those of us in attendance.  When it was all done, everyone seemed happy:  tweet seaters all enjoyed both the performance and the act of sharing it with the Twitter-following universe, Ms. Williams from LA Opera was quite happy with the buzz generated, and none of the other audience members shot us any mean looks or evil eyes.  Not sure where this will eventually lead, but I’d like to think this was a good start.

UPDATE:  The inaugural LA Opera tweet seaters:  Amanda Agnello (@MrsAgnello), Katie B (@YelpLA), Classical KUSC (@ClassicalKUSC), Lauri Goldenhersh (@laurislist), CK Dexter Haven (@MrCKDH), Jocelyn (@jozjozjoz), Kristall Lutz (@Kristal_LA), Beverly Reynolds (@beverlynoelle), Chambers Stevens (@chambersstevens), Katherine Talley (@katherinetalley)

Three of my fellow tweet seaters: Katherine Talley, Beverly Reynolds, and Chambers Stevens


Photo credits:

  • Council Chamber, wide shot:  CK Dexter Haven
  • All others:  Beverly Reynolds

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