Prosecco not Popcorn: Live theatre & opera on the big screen

Frankenstein - Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature in Danny Boyle

Forget Avatar; if you want a truly immersive big-screen experience you should try live relays of theatre and opera.

Over two days last week I was fortunate to see two remarkable productions on the BFI’s giant Imax screen near Waterloo – Danny Boyle’s National Theatre stage version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

Both are prohibitively difficult to see in the flesh – Boyle’s show is currently the hottest ticket in London with people queuing overnight to get hold of the handful of day seats available; and the New York Met is, er, in New York.

Seeing these productions on screen is not, of course, the same as seeing them on stage, but with high-definition video and surround sound on offer, it’s almost as good as the real thing. Knowing the performances are taking place live – and in the case of Frankenstein, only a few hundred yards away – only adds to the thrill.

From start to finish, Boyle’s Frankenstein staging was riveting on screen, compelling my attention from its first moments as Benedict Cumberbatch’s flailing, tottering Creature tries to master his limbs in his first moments of existence to its climax in the Arctic wilderness to which Jonny Lee Miller’s driven scientist Victor Frankenstein has pursued his creation.  (The actors alternate the lead roles – and there’s a chance to see Cumberbatch as the scientist and Miller as the Creature at the Imax, and on dozens of other cinema screens around the country, on Thursday 24th March.)

Natalie Dessay in the title role of DonizettiAs for the Met’s Lucia, that blew me away too – far more so, indeed, than on the two occasions when I’ve seen this particular work in the opera house.

They say live relays like this give you the best seat in the stalls. Actually, they give you a fine seat in the orchestra pit and backstage too – there’s a roving steadicam to track the singers as they come off stage at the end of each act and off-duty soprano Renée Fleming is waiting in the wings with a mic (think Sue Barker waiting to pounce on Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon) to interview them before they’ve even caught their breath.

OK. So this isn’t the same experience as sitting in the opera house – for a start, the director of the video transmission is the one deciding which aspect of the production you are going to focus on at any one moment. As a viewer, you’re far more passive than you are in the theatre – and not just because the performers can’t hear your applause (or boos).

That doesn’t mean you won’t want to applaud when the production is as electrifying as director Mary Zimmerman’s Met staging of Donizetti’s bel canto melodrama – a tale of feuding families, doomed love, ghosts and madness based on Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor.

Zimmerman’s solidly realistic staging couldn’t be more different from Boyle’s daringly expressionist Frankenstein (act one’s massive Highland crags and trees withstand the camera’s closest scrutiny; we aren’t in Brigadoon) – but it set off the performances admirably.

Directors of bel canto opera can all too easily resort to “Park and Bark” – plonk the singers centre stage and let them belt out the tunes – but this Lucia was full of nuance and detail, particularly from French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, who made the fragile heroine’s tour-de-force mad scene both chilling and moving.

After just one fix apiece of live theatre and opera on the big screen, I’m hooked. But then I’m a fan of theatre and opera anyway. It would be great if these live relays introduce the forms to new audiences and create new fans. Looking around the Imax, though, I saw the same theatre and opera-going demographic as I’d expect to see at the National Theatre or Coliseum. The popcorn stand was certainly deserted, while the counter selling glasses of prosecco was doing a roaring trade.

The National Theatre Live site has details of the Thursday 24 March live relay of Frankenstein and the forthcoming relay of The Cherry Orchard on Thursday 30 June.
The Met: Live season continues with Rossini’s comic romp Le Comte Ory on Saturday 9 April, which will be shown at the BFI Imax and other cinemas up and down the country, including the Picturehouse and Curzon chains.

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