An afternoon at the opera

23rd February 2014

3pm, and Screen 1 at Cineworld Wandsworth is perhaps one-sixth full. I am waiting for neither The Lego Movie nor Mr Peabody and Sherman – those cinemas have rather more people in them – but rather the ENO’s stand-out Peter Grimes with Stuart Skelton (above) live from the Coliseum. ‘Twas but twenty months ago that ENO artistic director John Berry told The Stage that screening productions in cinemas ‘is of no interest to me. It is not a priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either… this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work.’ Yet here is the company in a new partnership to screen productions in cinemas with the rather anonymous altivemedia group. Now clearly, given my close association with RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon (which is in a similar space for theatre) I’m the last person to judge this first outing objectively. Even so, here are my brief thoughts on how they got on.

David Alden’s stage production, which emphasises the dark and desperate perversity of Peter Grimes and makes the eponymous fisherman pretty much the most normal person on stage, is a wonder. The singing is glorious, especially from Skelton, from Elsa van den Heever (as Ellen, with tears on her cheeks as she contemplates Grimes’ fate), and from Felicity Palmer as Mrs Segley. The ENO chorus is in fine and ferocious fettle, and conductor Edward Gardner ensures that the score sounds appropriately like the best British and the greatest twentieth-century opera.

All good, but the cinema presentation less so. Screen director Andy Morahan spoke in advance about the need for an ‘injection’ of a rock’n’roll sensibility into the way opera has been brought to the screen thus far. He indicated that he wanted to have cameras in among the chorus and with the images in general ‘to keep them moving. Whether it’s little creeping zooms, dolly shots or jib crane shots. I always found with music videos that the more the camera moves, the more lyrical it looks.’

So as the drama on screen gets going we do indeed have ‘immersive’ close-ups on chorus singers and the occasional reverse shot looking back into the audience. We get lots of what too often seem like unmotivated camera movement, just to keep everything moving, and we have a fast pace for the changes of camera shots. In Act I this comes across as a bit of a mess, with the camera chasing the singing and never quite achieving a clarity for the drama to have its impact. As Grimes sings with Captain Balstrode (Iain Paterson) about his dreams of making a fortune and marrying Ellen, and then as he shares his yearnings with the audience, the camera seems not to know quite what to do, jumping around in a jittery manner as if a little desperate to move things on.

Oddly perhaps, the style works best for the musical interludes, with multiple cameras in the pit giving a strong sense of how Britten’s music unfolds in these crucial bridging passages that contain some of his most exquisite music. And things settle down a bit for Acts II and III, with a slower-paced editing style and less concern to bring in what might be regarded as unconventional angles. Which isn’t to say that some of the big close-ups and side-on shots don’t contribute, but overall there isn’t quite strong enough a sense that the cameras know best how to tell the story and to heighten the drama for those of us seated in Cineworld Wandsworth.

Rather more disappointing is the confused and penny-plain ‘presentation’. The advertised start time for the showing, both in the ENO’s publicity and from Cineworld, is 3pm, but when I enter the auditorium at 2.50 the introductory feature is already well into its stride. So I miss a chunk of what appears to be a neatly-constructed filmed feature about Britten, the opera and its cast. Some mistake here, surely? This comes to an end and host Clemency Burton-Hill appears briefly on screen to hand us over to the imminent performance.

Except that then we wait. And wait, for perhaps four minutes, as the screen shows us repeated shots of the auditorium and images of the chorus coming on stage. There’s no voice-over explanation to cover the mis-timed cue and no real moment when things actually begin. At the first interval, Clemency fails to to return to explain what’s going to happen, and instead a card comes up to let us know that this is indeed the interval. But there’s no clock to tell us how long this might be and no indication of whether there is to be any additional feature material. (You can, I acknowledge, find this info buried deep in the hand-out.)

Perhaps ten minutes into the interval, a second well-produced featurette pops up, this time taking us on a backstage tour around the various departments. At the close we get another glimpse of Clemency and another promise of the imminent return of the action. But then there is a further long-ish gap before things do start again. Which makes me think that the links are not being shot live but rather are pre-recorded segments with no possibility of our host responding at all to what is actually happening.

By the time the second interval comes round there is a countdown clock on the screen, but no word about what to expect. Which tuns out to be nothing. Nor is there an intro to Act III. The contrast could not be greater with the Royal Opera House cinema broadcasts, where the presentation elements have become increasingly elaborate over the past year (including an over-excited Bryn Terfel for the recent Don Giovanni), and increasingly concerned to make the most of their live-ness. Here. it all feels a little under-produced, and a disappointing frame for the magnificence of Britten’s music drama.

Update: Kate Molleson had a not-dissimilar experience for the Guardian at Glasgow’s Cineworld – her piece is well worth reading.

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