The Met: Captured Live in HD/National Theatre Live

December 14, 2013
Anna Netrebko and Ambrogio Maestri in 'L'Elisir d'Amore. Photographed by Nick Heavican
Anna Netrebko and Ambrogio Maestri in 'L'Elisir d'Amore. Photographed by Nick Heavican

For those who hesitate to keep up a subscription at the opera or the theatre the live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the National Theatre Live from Britain, are a pure pleasure. For less than $30 one can sample the very best these cities have to offer, getting ringside seats for shows that are sold out as soon as the tickets are issued.

I’ve been attending these broadcasts whenever possible, having overcome my initial scruples that it was not quite ‘the real thing’ to view a theatrical spectacle on a movie screen. There is actually no right or wrong way to view anything, beyond the simple requirement of turning the mobile phone off. The penalty for tweeting in a film should be confiscation of the offending device, or perhaps stoning.

One soon learns that some operas are better suited to broadcast than others. A romantic comic opera such as Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, with the glorious Anna Netrebko in the lead role, was just about ideal. The action was brought into clear focus and one could follow every phrase as it issued from the singers in close-up.

Large-scale extravaganzas such as Verdi’s Aida, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and Wagner’s Parsifal, are probably better viewed in the theatre. On screen the epic scale of the production is lost as the camera zeros in on the singer. It feels as if we are alternating between intimate and sweeping views, yet Wagner’s grand designs were made to keep us plebs at a distance.

At one stage this year I sat in the audience at the Met for a performance of Shostakovich’s The Nose, as directed by South African artist, William Kentridge. It was an engrossing spectacle, multi-layered in its range of historical references. But a friend who watched the same performance at the cinema in Bondi felt there was simply too much going on visually to allow one to concentrate on the music. This is a problem that doesn’t admit of an easy solution, because one would not decry grand experiments such as Kentridge’s Nose, or the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Luminous, which featured a montage of images by Bill Henson. Nevertheless, both of these events set up a competition for the viewer’s attention between the ear and eye.

A true point of comparison would be to see a performance at the Met and a broadcast of the same opera. I’ll have the chance this weekend because Tosca, which I also saw in New York, is being screened around Australia. A more traditional production than the last two that we’ve endured at the Australian Opera, it puts a premium on the singing rather than the spectacle. As such it should translate well to the movie screen.

The current season, which rolls on until June 2014 will also include Verdi’s Falstaff, Dvorak’s Rusalka, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Massenet’s Werther, Puccini’s La Bohème, Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Even though it’s probably least amenable to the cinema, the one I’m most curious to see is Prince Igor, which hasn’t been performed at the Met for almost a century.

As for the National Theatre Live, current screenings include Danny Boyle’s brilliant stage adaptation of Frankenstein, where Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate, from one night to the next, in the roles of the doctor and the monster; and Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, staged in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. This play was so eagerly anticipated that tickets for the first season sold out in minutes.

The production didn’t disappoint, the highlight being Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, “Life’s but a walking shadow…” which Branagh pronounces with much gasping and dribbling. This season also includes productions of Hamlet and Coriolanus, as well as a special event celebrating 50 years of the National Theatre, featuring every major British actor from Maggie Smith to Ralph Fiennes, which may be seen this weekend.

The broadcasting of live theatre is less problematic than opera but it still feels slightly raw, as if all the familiar devices of the cinema had been stripped away. While the quality of the productions tends to override such misgivings, many viewers will find that a visit to these screenings reawakens their desire to experience the theatre or opera in an old-fashioned, unmediated form.

Met Opera:
http://www.sharmillfilms.com.au/?page_id=2195
National Theatre Live:
http://www.sharmillfilms.com.au/?page_id=2197

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14 December, 2013.