For many years, going to the opera was like viewing the world from the wrong end of a telescope. Unless you could afford the best seats in the house, watching opera was strictly a long-distance experience. Five years ago, though, Nathanial Merrill, resident stage director at the Metropolitan Opera for 28 years, discovered Boettcher Hall - a new concert hall in the round - in Denver. With visionary flair, Mr. Merrill formed Opera Colorado, the first grand opera company in the round. Since then, opera has become accessible to everyone, for the arena experience is the most democratizing way to be personally involved in the art form that wraps singing, orchestral music, ballet, chorus, drama, and spectacle together in one package.
In the 2,600 seats of Boettcher Hall, no one is farther than 85 feet from the stage. The viewing intimacy is almost on a par with one's living room, with just the right aesthetic distance for ``illusion'' to take place, although everything is, of course, three-dimensionally real.
Opera Colorado performances have great impact in the round, whether one is watching battle scenes from this month's ``Samson and Delilah'' or the deportation of the prostitutes in Puccini's ``Manon Lescaut.''
For opera singers, theater-in-the-round is a unique experience. Soprano Catherine Malfitano, who had appeared in the opera's inaugural production of ``La Boh`eme'' five years ago, said that in Boettcher Hall, ``every part of your body is activated; you have a sense of energy, of being able to relate in a whole way, not just through the front side of you, as you do on a proscenium stage.''
Because singers have to face all sides of the hall, maintaining contact with the conductor can be problematic. Colorado Opera uses four TV monitors to aid in musical coordination - but for singers dependent on eye contact with conductors, it's almost like shadow boxing.
Viorica Cortez, who plays Delilah in ``Samson,'' which opened last Saturday, said ``singing in the round isn't difficult for a good actor once you get used to it. Its difficulty is that your contact with the conductor is not direct. But it has numerous pleasures for someone who loves acting; it's like a living sculpture - one can address everybody, exactly like in life, without too many conventions.''
Opera-in-the-round presents set designers with challenges different from those of the proscenium stage. Designer Robert O'Hearn, who came from the Met to Colorado for this year's productions, said, ``You have to do things that don't obscure the audience's view. You're more limited, in a way, so you have to be more ingenious.''
Because there is no backdrop, the floor becomes important as a launching pad for set design. ``People, costumes, and props also take on more importance as scenery,'' Mr. O'Hearn said.
For O'Hearn, this month's productions of ``Samson and Delilah'' and ``Manon Lescaut'' presented opposing problems and solutions.
```Samson' is the kind of piece that works visually best in the round,'' he said. ``You can do a permanent unit with variations to it; the opera has a strong visual look.'' There is a round central platform that serves as an altar with winged lions, a bed under a tent canopy for the seduction scene, and then as a huge millstone that the blinded and shorn Samson turns in the last act. At the opera's grand climax, 34-foot free-standing pillars fall in a controlled way, along with ``rocks'' that drop from the ceiling.
```Manon,' instead of having the strong focus of `Sam-son,' unfolds in four completely different places,'' O'Hearn explained. ``It has the problem of scene shifts, with three different outdoor scenes and an indoor boudoir.'' Scenes progress from Manon's arrival in Amiens in a real carriage with horses, to her delicate pink 18th-century Parisian salon, to her banishment to the ship at Le Havre, and finally to her desolation with Des Grieux in the wilds of Louisiana. In ``Samson,'' when the lighting is propitious, figures of soldiers and dancers become almost sculptures that have an heightened aesthetic quality, as well as a three-dimensional reality.
The presence of the chorus members is one of the most exciting and dramatic elements of opera-in-the-round. Merrill chooses many operas because of the excitement their choruses give in this format, and music director Louise Sherman, who also works at the Met, has assembled one of the best opera choruses in the world with Opera Colorado; the singing has an unusual freedom of expression, as well as resonance, and the 115 singers move with impressive flexibility over the entire stage.
The opening-night performance early this month of ``Manon Lescaut'' brought together a cast of superb singers, but especially the two leads, soprano Josella Ligi as Manon and Vasile Moldoveanu as Des Grieux. Miss Ligi's sound is memorably vibrant, rich, and full, with perfect evenness throughout her range. She can switch from the most frivolous effervescence to the darkest sounds of pathos with no effort at all, and she grasped the complexities of Manon's capricious character.
Mr. Moldoveanu was her well-matched partner. His voice has enormous power and thrust, a steel-like focus, warmth, gorgeous tone, and Italianate passion, without resorting to unctuous sobs. He's a great romantic tenor one can believe in, and his persuasive acting and chiseled good looks make him a formidable rival to the Domingos of this world. He and Ligi sang together as though everything that was happening was real.
Memorable also were Eric Parce's fresh-sounding baritone and rakish interpretation of the opportunistic Lescaut; Stephen West's vocal and dramatic characterization of the aging Geronte; and Joseph Frank's immaculate protrayal of the ultra-refined dancing master. Hungarian conductor Janos Acs did a brilliant job of bringing out musical detail in Puccini's strange fusion of 18th-century French and 19th-century Italian styles, as well as infusing the whole with remarkable energy.
Jon Vickers, who just opened in Opera Colorado's ``Samson'' after finishing a proscenium ``Samson'' at the Met, is a dominating presence on stage, both vocally and physically. He is partnered by Miss Cortez, an extraordinary Delilah, a mezzo of splendidly suggestive voice and movement.
This blockbuster production of Merrill's makes dynamic use of choral masses, soldiers, and undulating dancers in a way that engulfs the in-the-round viewer like a tidal wave.
Additional performances of ``Samson and Delilah'' are scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, and Sunday.