The Film industry gets hold of Opera

We are in an age where cinema is affecting our lives in ways we don't realise (until perhaps it is too late). There are claims that cigarette smoking on screen glamorizes it, the American dialect in speech can be heard the world over, even in countries where English is not the primary language and film directors, writers and composers are branching out to live stage productions. None of these things are new. There was a call for legislation in the 60's to ban smoking on screen. The film industry responded by voluntarily cutting back (for a while - as now it's difficult to find a film where there isn't someone smoking at some point). John Wayne and Clint Eastwood cowboy flicks were huge international hits bringing American Old West culture to the world (even though some of them were filmed in Italy - thus spaghetti westerns). Film stars are often gone to Broadway bringing their fame to on stage productions, and Mel Brookes has given new life to his film "The Producers" by taking it to Broadway - although that's where he originally intended it to be performed.

But there is a new craze, with Cronenberg and Shore teaming up with the opera "The Fly" and with Robert Lepage's production of "The Rake's Progress". While the later was written as an opera (Stravinsky's only full length opera with libretto by Auden), the current production at Covent Gardens (by way of San Francisco, Madrid, Lyon and Brussels), its story is that of a film maker and so the production uses lots of film effects to bring the production to life.

Does it succeed? - While I have not seen the production, Richard Fairman of the Financial Times finds "the logic of Auden's tightly constructed libretto has been shot to pieces." He enjoyed the "wide-screen Texas landscape and the rooftop swimming pool" - but Edward Seckerson of the Independent wasn't impressed. Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph considers it "a major disappointment." Both reviewers comment on how they were disappointed by the direction, even though the concept had real possibilities.

On the other hand Dominic McHugh of gave the production three and half stars. Some of the points that Fairman and Seckerson point out are carried through with McHugh's review, but where McHugh differs is his comparision of the stage production with the DVD (which McHugh thinks really works). The staging, which allows for expansive views removes the intimacy of opera, so the performers seem swamped by the sets. This is not a problem with the DVD production as close-ups are still possible.

So, where did Lepage go wrong? The story is of a film maker and so Lepage attempted to put a film on stage - and (IMHO) this doesn't work. Opera is different than film, Broadway is different than film. "Evita" is a powerful musical, and some say the acting by Madonna is what killed the movie, but personally I feel it was the direction by Alan Parker. Parker didn't know whether we was making a film or filming a musical - and the lack of clarity made for a poor film. "Moulin Rouge", on the other hand, was brilliant - even though the singing by Nicole Kidman wasn't first rate. Baz Luhrmann understood he was making a film and so the production was focused in all the right directions. "The Lion King" which was a cartoon was transformed into a successful on stage production by Julie Taymor - who wasn't trying to reproduce a cartoon on stage, but bring the story to life.

I am not against people in the film industry crossing the line to live theatre (or visa versa). But I do believe they need to understand live theatre is a different media and so requires a different approach. "The Fly" is getting warm reviews, although Howard Shore isn't fairing well. "The Rake's Progress" is (at least in terms of finances) a successful production - but (while I've not seen either, so arguably I may be speaking out of turn), I think both missed the mark of what they could have been.

Some interesting notes:

  • Stravinsky's score is neo-classic while Shore's is more akin to something from the Schoenberg school of atonality. Stravinsky's music is praised; Shore's is not.
  • Placido Domingo directs "The Fly" and given praise for his sensitive touch to a difficult score. Thomas Adès directs "The Rake's Progress" and every reviewer felt it was too sluggish. Many spoke of the rich sounds out of the orchestra, but occasionally the singers were drowned out.


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