Nice aria, shame about the film

Operas on screen bring expensive productions within general reach. But the results are disappointing, says Jessica Duchen

Next weekend, why not nip down to the cinema and enjoy... a spot of Wagner. "Cinecasts" have become the coolest way to enjoy opera: increasing enthusiasm for them appears to be sweeping the globe – the sold-out cinemas tell their own story.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York first tested a cinecast five years ago; now, in the era of HD, many more companies are taking up the challenge internationally, and not just in opera. From the Bolshoi Ballet to our own National Theatre, stars of the performing arts are ready to wow us in the comfort of our local multiplex.

Next up is the Met's Die Walküre, the second opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, which will hit stage and screen on 14 May, directed by Robert Lepage and featuring an extraordinary roster of operatic celebrities including Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. At the Met itself you'd fork out around $300 (£180) for a seat. Trot along to the cinecast, though, and you can see it all for a relatively modest £30.

It's a deliciously modern medium. Last month the Met treated the world to Rossini's Le Comte Ory, starring a happy, if exhausted, Juan Diego Florez, whose wife had given birth half an hour before curtain-up. Opera fans in different countries united on Twitter to compare notes, sharing the experience while thousands of miles apart.

Opera and cinema, of course, are by no means strangers. Operatic films have occasionally become classics, notably the 1984 Carmen starring Julia Migenes-Johnson and Placido Domingo, fabulously filmed on location in Andalucia. Opera on film can be a vehicle for starry presences – try Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna in Tosca (2002), directed by Benoît Jacquot; as for television, last year Verdi's Rigoletto, with Domingo, was broadcast in instalments live at the appropriate times of day from the palaces of Mantua. These projects, though, were one-offs; cinecasts have become a regular feature in cinemas all over the world.

Still, opera and cinema can be uneasy bedfellows. Peculiarly enough, at the same time that live opera went into cinemas, opera companies began to engage big-name film directors to create new productions for stage, not screen. Sometimes it works. The late Anthony Minghella's 2005 production of Madam Butterfly for the Met and ENO was generally adored, won an Olivier Award, and has been revived several times. And when Terry Gilliam's new production of The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz opens at ENO this Friday, everyone will be hoping that the former Monty Python artwork supremo will have enough wit and wisdom to transfer his screen magic to the Coliseum stage.

But other results have been dubious. ENO found success elusive with Abbas Kiarostami's rather static production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, and a couple of months ago Mike Figgis's staging there of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia was dismissed by one critic as "psychologically moribund, visually dull and dramatically stone dead". Faced with an unfamiliar live and musical medium, superb cinema directors can seem out of their depth: no close-ups, no fascinating camera-angles, and certainly no relying on the dramatic expertise of those in the leading roles, who are not generally selected for their acting.

Opera and cinema make extremely different demands on their directors and raise completely separate sets of audience expectations. The peculiar outcome is that film directors are failing on stage, while specialist opera directors find only second-hand success on screen via the cinecasts.As for the audience, much of the current cinecast craze is down to its novelty. Some of us are trying operas for the first time; sometimes we get hooked.

Hear Jonas Kaufmann or Juan Diego Florez, nearly live, for a reasonable price, from a comfortable cinema armchair rather than an overpriced, under-sized seat that only shows you the stars at the size of pins? The advantage is clear. But – and it's a big but – there's a drawback. This experience of opera may take place in real time, but it is not really "live" because the show is still somewhere that you're not. The truth rams home when the curtain falls and you applaud – only to realise that the performers can't hear you and the rest of the audience is giving you funny looks. The edge is immediately blunted.

Cinecasts are neither truly live performance, nor real cinema. At the moment the emphasis is firmly on showcasing great performing-companies to prove that they can reach a wide audience; the "live on stage" element has been the chief selling-point. But because of the discrepancy between the two media, the artistic result is bound to remain second-best: essentially this is visual radio plus tonsils. Cinema can do much, much more when it tries.

Wim Wenders's Pina, which brings us the late choreographer Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal in up-to-the-minute 3D, filmed with exceptional poetry and sensitivity, proves just how effectively stage works can be brought into the cinema. The startling beauty of Pina is likely to win many more new friends for contemporary dance than any number of views of Kaufmann and Voigt's epiglottises will gain for opera. Nor is 3D the answer in itself: the Mariinsky Ballet recently cinecast Giselle in 3D, but the result was widely felt to require considerable fine tuning.

What's needed, above all, is a great enough imagination and the requisite directorial empathy to redesign the performing arts for the big screen and give them the best of both worlds, rather than two thin ends of the wedge. Currently the capabilities of film far outstrip what we see in cinecasts. If opera were tocatch up, the rewards could be stunning.

The filming of opera needs to be exciting, thought-provoking, magical: it should add a new dimension of its own to the experience. Wenders with Pina does precisely that for dance.

And, in an ideal world, filmed opera could become an art form in its own right. Perhaps it will be sooner than we think.

'Die Walküre' from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, will be cinecast on 14 May

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions