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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?