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New York, New York: Part 1 

Is it live, or is it HD?

Huge tubs of popcorn gliding down the dimly lit aisles. Families in jackets and jeans scrambling for seats. Bathroom breaks two minutes before maestro James Levine was set to strike up the overture -- and immediately after the first Mozart aria.

No, this wasn't your typical Metropolitan Opera experience.

Every year around holiday season, when performing arts activity in Charlotte is lean and predictable, I migrate to the Big Apple, sample the new shows on Broadway and Off-Broadway, and report back to loyal Loafers. Into that glitzy mix of theater fare, I've tossed in two or three opera productions that I've seen at Lincoln Center.

Change was in the air this year. While I was making my annual pilgrimage to the Met, the Met's new GM, Peter Gelb, was launching an unprecedented outreach that stretched out across America -- and spanned the oceans to Europe and Japan. Live Met broadcasts, a fixture in American households -- and along American highways -- for 75 years, were no longer confined to radio. New technology was beaming hi-fi sound and hi-def video to more 150 movie theaters dotting the Northern Hemisphere.

So on the afternoon of December 30, I forsook the carpeted lobbies of Lincoln Center and journeyed to the nearest cinema where I could watch Julie Taymor's intrepid redesign of The Magic Flute on widescreen HD. The road to eye-popping high culture led me to New Rochelle, New York, where the Met's Saturday afternoon broadcast began promptly at 1:30 p.m.

It was essential for me to abandon my usual Big Apple base of operations in New York, New York, to keep pace with the folk back home in Charlotte, N.C. That's because one of the select locations receiving the Met's signal was the Regal Stonecrest at Piper Glen, off the Rea Road exit on Charlotte's outerbelt.

To keep on the cutting edge, I doubled back to Manhattan that same evening and saw the Met's production of I Puritani, featuring soprano sensation Anna Netrebko. That enabled me to make a valid Live vs. HD comparison with the sights and sounds still fresh in my head from the Regal New Roc City multiplex.

In my continuing quest for non-Yuletide programming during the holidays in Gotham, there was a timely breakthrough at Carnegie Hall. Daniel Barenboim led his provocative West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a program of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms on December 19. With a pointedly defiant encore of Wagner.

Comprised entirely of young Arab and Israeli musicians aged 17-25, the West-Eastern Divan was hatched in Weimar in 1998, by Barenboim and the late Arab intellectual Edward W. Said. Christmas music would be the last thing you'd expect from this ensemble. Discreetly, all religious music has been absent from the Divan's widely acclaimed discography.

The West-Eastern's latest Warner CD, a starry performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony #9 recorded live in a Berlin concert, typifies Barenboim's thrust. A cry for universal brotherhood without religious preaching.

Altogether, three of the four operas I saw in New York are a part of the exciting first season of "The Met Goes to the Movies." Flute and I Puritani have already been shown at the Regal Stonecrest. But the Met will serve up its world premiere production of Tan Dan's The First Emperor for your matinee enjoyment this Saturday at the Regal Stonecrest and across the global network.

Diehards who missed the historic Flute broadcast on December 30 can catch an encore on January 23 at 7:30 p.m. But they'll need to journey to the Brassfield Cinema 10 in Greensboro to do it. On a school night.

With all this pertinent action going on up North, we're pushing my classical music reviews to the front of the bus this year and breaking the Loaf's annual roundup into two halves. Part 2 of our "New York, New York" series runs next week, spotlighting 11 new Broadway/Off-Broadway shows. First, we'll give you the score at suddenly-relevant Carnegie Hall and the born-again populist Met:

Don Carlo (***3/4 out of 4) -- Based on Friedrich Schiller's tragic thriller, Verdi's operatic Don is surely the Italian master's most ambitious effort. Some of the royal intrigue and the pulsating shifts in advantage that run through Schiller's script must be sacrificed -- even when the operatic version stretches to 4 hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions. But what's lacking in the sheer dynamism of the scheming nobles, Verdi nearly restores with a soaring string of impassioned arias amid tensions that keep ratcheting tighter in the Met's five-act version.

The compelling performance we saw achieved an unforgettable lift-off when the curtain rose on the famed Act 4 study scene, and bass baritone Renè Pape sang King Philip's heartfelt lament, "She Never Loved Me." Incredibly, after the long ovation died down, Samuel Ramey sustained the momentum in a role perfectly apt for the declining days of his sterling career: the granitic, purblind Grand Inquisitor of the fearful Spanish Inquisition.

Speaking of 3.00000

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