With all the talk nowadays — including plenty of polemic — about the pluses and minuses of the digital universe that we are entering (or that swallows us up, in some accounts), we shouldn’t forget about one area in which the results are clearly all gains: the digital exhibition. For libraries, especially, and for some museums, this kind of show is not only adequate but absolutely ideal. Among its many benefits is that it finally reconciles the concerns of the publicist with that of the conservator — nobody is damaging the artefacts by enjoying them. Of course at least the skill of a top museum curator is required for the most excellent of these, and we have a fine example immediately to hand: this site, from the New York Public Library, is worthy of the most concentrated attention.

There’s the added benefit that you can visit it as often as you might wish, and you can do it in any state of dress, while reclining, with a drink at hand!

The whole subject of how opera productions should look is much controverted these days, especially in online discussion. Much is made of the idea that Broadway and its practitioners are influencing, for conspicuous example, the Met. Some find this a blessing and some a bane. But we should remember that Broadway shows have changed at least as much as opera productions have. Here is a set of video views of Noël Coward’s 1929 Bittersweet, which was presented in that year both in the West End and on Broadway. It should help clear our minds of any idea that lavish, hyper-realistic productions began with one Signor Zeffirelli.

Tip of the hat to Robert Francks

previn Last evening’s world premiere of André Previn’s powerful setting of John Caird’s perfect libretto based on the haunting David Lean movie, Brief Encounter, was in turn based on a one-act play of Noel Coward, Still Life. Even with a lineage like that, a success is not guaranteed. In this instance, however, the success was entire.

There is no point in transferring a story from one medium to another unless something is thereby gained. It would be foolish to insist that an effective work of art like the Coward play or the Lean film needs to be supplemented via other means. But when — as in this case — values are magnified, new relationships of word and emotion are brought into relief, new emotional recollections are evoked, and new pleasures bestowed, the contributions of the new medium are not only commendable but to be celebrated. And I have been celebrating in the hours since I was overwhelmed by this opera.

I will give two instances of reverberant devices that only opera can add to a drama like this one. When Laura, the woman who is suffering the pangs of a love that doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life, is with other people who are prattling on with gossip or with crossword clues, her own agonized thoughts are sung in expressive duet with the quotidian banality of the other character’s utterances. This technique is utterly artificial and completely like the experience of real life at the same time. And only opera can re-present this.

Also, at the catastrophe of the final goodbye between Laura and her temporary lover Alec, we experience Alec’s expressive singing of his feelings for her and their permanence while, downstage in his accustomed easy chair, Laura’s quietly longsuffering husband Fred is singing with him the very same words. In both cases they are dramatically and psychologically true, but with completely distinct implications for the universe that all three inhabit. Again, only opera can portray all this at once. And rivetingly.

It was fitting that, the night before the premiere, a smaller, less formal event honored the 80th anniversary of the birth of André Previn. I sat immediately behind him and Anne-Sophie Mutter during this musical evening and was profoundly touched to see a physically feeble man of great mental and creative vitality react to the highly apposite musical performances that were devised to celebrate his life. Even though, from my teenage years, Previn’s work — particularly as a performer — has had a profound effect on my own life, I determined I would not be one of the people running to him afterwards to tell him how wonderful he is. For one thing, what does one say to increase the satisfaction a person must feel after he has received four Oscars (from eight nominations), a knighthood, and practically every honor the music world affords? But when we stood at the end, there he was: facing me directly. I stammered, “Maestro, I want to tell you that I heard you play Mozart piano sonatas thirty years ago in Pittsburgh, and I consider you the best Mozart pianist I have ever heard.” Whereupon he looked at me with an evident pleasure that could not have been feigned and told me that nothing I could have said would have made him happier. Every once in a while, one does the right thing.


LATE UPDATE: After posting the above from the Houston airport, I found myself at Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic blog. In one of those gratifying instances of synchronicity, I find that he has today blogged about the experience, as a repressed, lonely, lovelorn teenager in England, of “memorizing Brief Encounter.” While I hope new generations of conflicted, teenaged romanticists experience Coward and Lean, I trust that Previn also will lead them to new manifestations of the cathartic emotions of this powerful story. Surely a CD (and, preferably, a DVD) is in the offing.

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