New York City's Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting its Saturday afternoon performances live around the world via radio since the '30s, and on PBS since the '70s, bringing one of the world's great opera companies to big cities and hamlets alike. But only recently has the technology developed to allow broadcasts on a scale more appropriate to the Met's grandeur: the big screen. Bellini's I Puritani last Saturday was the first of five operas this season to be broadcast live via satellite to movie theaters around the country. The closest it came to Seattle was a multiplex across from the SuperMall in Auburn. When was the last time Seattleites had to drive to the south-end burbs for culture they couldn't get at home? It's all part of a larger plan to raise the Met's distribution and audience outreach efforts to the same level of sophistication as its music—to counteract, the Met hopes, the shrinking and graying of its audience. Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager since August, is bringing a fresh eye to the problems of opera staging, hiring non- opera directors like Bartlett Sher from Seattle's Intiman Theatre and Anthony (The English Patient) Minghella. This past weekend we saw Sandro Sequi's deeply traditionalist and uncluttered staging of I Puritani, visually uninteresting in itself but a functional frame for the opera's bel canto fireworks.The operas selected for movie-theater broadcast seem to have been chosen for star power: Anna Netrebko, a 35-year-old Russian whose career has exploded via her combination of grab-you-by-the-lapels dramatic intensity and fashion-spread media flair, was the draw for I Puritani (which, as it happens, Seattle Opera will be performing in May 2008). It's a diva vehicle as old-fashioned as they come, an affair of capes, gowns, swords, a mad scene, and a soprano-tenor-baritone love triangle. It offers less a plot than a series of premises; Bellini strung together his set pieces with as little narrative as he could get away with—the 19th-century equivalent, come to think of it, of the sort of formulaic genre movie that fills up multiplexes all the time anyway, with high C's substituting for fireballs. To ease us through the two leisurely intermissions, the Met piled on more celebrity: Renée Fleming conducted some rather intrusive and uninformative interviews with Netrebko in her dressing room ("So how do you feel after singing a half-hour mad scene?" Well, she's visibly exhausted, Renée; give the poor woman a rest); and America's favorite opera grandma, Beverly Sills, cracked jokes about the limpness of the story line and the near- impossible demands of Bellini's vocal writing. Unlike the radio audience, we in the theater got no Opera Quiz. Nor did we get programs of any kind—how expensive would it have been to provide 220 viewers with a single 8½-by-11 sheet with the cast list and a synopsis? You might think opera-at-the-movies would invite more informal behavior, but the Auburn audience was as quiet, if not quieter, than audiences at McCaw Hall. (Popcorn was eaten, but silently.) Some viewers applauded at the ends of arias, some didn't. There were, of course, subtitles. The sound quality left little to be desired, as did the crisp high-definition images. The cameras stayed out of the singers' way and skillfully managed the translation from a distant three-dimensional experience to a larger-than-life two-dimensional one (though surely no one needed the zoom-in shots of the Met flutist and her 4-foot-wide embouchure). The only minor drawback to this translation is the same one that marks any filmed or televised opera performance: Opera was never meant to be an art of close-ups; it's an art of projection—of a human voice and the emotions it bears arcing into space. Even a state-of-the-art screen and sound system can't reproduce the feeling you get from a live voice soaring toward you, filling a hall, enveloping you in your seat. (Recordings seem to approximate this effect better than TV or film can.) Tickets ($18) for I Puritani went fast; as of last Monday, when I bought mine online, there were about 20 seats left to be sold in the 220-seat theater, with one seat left when I picked the tickets up Saturday morning. Coming up next Saturday is a new work, Tan Dun's The First Emperor, which I'd like to think the Met chose to show off their commission but which they probably chose because Placido Domingo is singing the title role. Fleming sings Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin on Feb. 24; Bartlett Sher's well-received production of The Barber of Seville comes up March 24; and the season closes April 28 with Puccini's Il Trittico. Redmond's Bella Bottega will also be showing the opera this coming weekend and for the rest of the season—it's one of the few area theaters with both satellite feed and digital projection capability. It's a shame that no theaters in Seattle proper are able to join the program, considering this city boasts, as Seattle Opera likes to remind us, the highest per-capita opera attendance in America.firstname.lastname@example.orgThe First Emperor Auburn 17 Theaters, 1110 SuperMall Way, Auburn; Bella Bottega Theaters, 8890 161st Ave. N.E., Redmond. $15–$18. 10:30 a.m. Sat., Jan. 13.