A love — or even tolerance — of opera proves optional to full enjoyment of “The Audition,” Susan Froemke’s absorbing, sumptuously crafted docu about aspiring tenors, baritones and sopranos vying for glory on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Although the venue’s competitive nature generates a certain “American Idol”-esque suspense, what resonates more strongly is a sense of shared purpose and passion. Playing nationwide in 400 theaters April 19 (prior to a summer DVD release and fall PBS airing), the docu adds an accessible strain to the highly successful “The Met: Live on HD” theatrical lineup.
Veteran helmer Froemke uses the semifinals of the National Council Auditions, involving 22 professional singers from across the country, to introduce several main players, lay out the Met’s imposing topography (later exploited more dramatically) and stress the competitive aspect of the proceedings, subsequently muted in collaborative efforts. Pic later focuses on the 11 finalists (from which five or six winners will be chosen): They are instantly welcomed into the fold, the Met’s vast resources deployed to accommodate, polish and refine their talents.
Ultimately, the intense weeklong preparations by voice, breath and dramatic coaches — and by pixieish orchestra conductor Marco Armiliato, the smiling antithesis of the temperamental maestro — are ministered with so much supportive, flattering attention that every finalist emerges stronger.
The looming musical showdown sharpens the contestants’ consciousness of their weak points: Three zaftig chanteuses fear their expansive physiques might weigh against the current preference for sexier divas, while petite soprano Kiera Duffy frets about prejudice against lesser lung power. Tenor Alek Shrader’s choice of “A mes amis” brings a new dimension to the table, as the aria’s notorious nine high Cs make it evident that difficulty will count. But to Shader, the chance to sing an aria he once only dreamt of mastering seems prize enough.
Froemke deftly maintains a dynamic balance, following the throughline of a particular artist’s development while keeping track of several singers at once without losing clarity or depth. This complex interweaving of individual and collective strands grants the docu a rare richness that climaxes spectacularly.
By the time the big night arrives and each singer must perform in front of a packed house, the viewer is intimately acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of most of the participants, having heard snatches of their selections at various phases of mastery. The docu’s finale is a triumph for Froemke and editor Kathleen Dougherty, as the long, winding backstage corridors are transformed into labyrinths of the mind. The performances are intercut with glimpses of satin-clad figures caught gesturing behind still-undrawn curtains or tragically scurrying off through blackness after a disastrous turn, anxiously waiting in the wings or suddenly exiting after their 10 minutes in the limelight.