The Joys of Television, and Praise for Janacek


(c) Susan Brodie

Alcatraz, a maximum security prison from the same era as Janacek's masterpiece



After living without a TV for most of my adult life I've recently become quite addicted to the Tube. An American who doesn't follow sports, I still don't own a set at home, but in France I turn the thing on as soon as the alarm goes off. TF2's  morning show, Telematin, helps me start each day in French, and to fill in time between weather and news bulletins the program runs segments that clue me in to cultural goings on in Paris and elsewhere in the Hexagon. After Telematin and before Days of Our Lives (dubbed into French, naturally) there's a short book review segment. Book reviews on daytime TV! And I love the commercials: where else do you get dancing salamis and pitches for three different brands of foie gras before 8:00, at least during the holiday season?


In the evening, among the wasteland of dubbed American series, circus/cabaret/variety shows with bad singers, and "reality" shows about the love lives of lonely farmers and home cooks in competition, the national broadcast channels present cultural programming, including a surprising number of concert and opera transmissions. Thanks to the heads-up postings on a couple of French music blogs (second link in English) I've been able to plan my viewing (and exasperate my friends) in advance.


Last night's offering was particularly enticing: the French-German ARTE culture channel showed Janácek's 1927 opera From the House of the Dead, conducted by Pierre Boulez in Patrice Chéreau's production from the 2007 Aix-en-Provence festival. I had seen this production at the Met last spring, but on a night I was too jet-lagged to keep my eyes open, even though the music did penetrate through the fatigue. So I was glad to have the chance to see the much-discussed coups de theatre that I had missed live.


Even with those naked men in the shower scene and the load of garbage crashing onto the stage (raising clouds of dust that no singer should have to breathe), it was the music that made the biggest impact last night. Janácek wrote verismo opera about life in the early gray days of European Communism using a unique musical language that mashes dissonance and cacophony into neo-tonality like a sudden hailstorm on a field of wheat. But the music is always powerful and piquant, energetic and emotional, and filled with an irrepressible joy that defies the grimmest libretto. From the gray mass of prisoners emerged poignant stories of individuals driven to extreme action by inexorable passions, and the men's efforts to humanize their ugly situation were heartbreaking. The fine ensemble cast, among them tenor Stefan Margita and baritone Olaf Baer, enjoyed solid support from the excellent Arnold Schonberg Choir, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and a cadre of brave non-speaking and singing performers–hard to call them "extras".


There's no question that an opera seen on a 13-inch TV with poor-quality sound is far removed from the original experience. This was brought home by last summer's PBS broadcast of SOUTH PACIFIC, even watched on a state-of-the-art home theater. But at least I had a chance to see what I never managed in two years to see live, and it made me vow to get to the theater for the next great event. And in contrast to radio or recordings, a spectacle like Chereau's staging is impossible to ignore, even though I did (guiltily) indulge in the occasional text message during the program.


Next on the small screen: the revival of Giorgio Strehler's production of Le Nozze di Figaro, a time-delayed live broadcast from Opéra de Paris Nov 3 on TF3. Unfortunately I don't have the ability to time-shift here, because Figaro is followed at 02:50 by a rebroadcast of Rameau's Les Paladins recorded at the Théatre du Chatelet in 2004 (another show I "saw" in 2006, between and over the two heads that flanked a column directly in front of my not-cheap seat at the Chatelet….another advantage to video: no partial-view seats).