Rigoletto – The ‘Live Film’

Over the weekend of 4th/5th September BBC2, along with a host of  television broadcasters around the world, carried a ‘live film’ of Rigoletto with Placido Domingo in the title role.

This was not the first ‘live film’ – there have been productions of Tosca and La Traviata previously – but it was certainly the first that I have seen properly. It needs to be explained first what a ‘live film’ involves. It is shot in the actual locations, in this case Mantua, where the opera is set, and using appropriate period, in this case early 16thC,  designs and settings : the film is then broadcast live at the appropriate time.  So Act 1 went out early Saturday evening, Act 2 Sunday lunchtime and Act 3 on Sunday night. This is not of course ‘real time’ since the gap between Acts 2 and 3 in the opera is a month, but it does mean that the action takes place at the appropriate time of day (or night).

The whole idea of ‘live film’ is a curious new hybrid combining opera, film and television, and therefore the experience of watching it is quite different to watching either an opera live, or a filmed opera production, or an opera production on television. The very nature of this hybridisation probably has much to tell us about the nature of the mediums and is therefore of great interest. I want to start by stressing that this is a film. It has a director, Marco Bellocchio, and a brilliant and distinguished cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro (who did Apocalypse Now). Therefore there is a cinematic intelligence and flair. The lighting is obviously contrived and it was generally highly effective. The film was often beautiful to look at and at certain moments was brilliant in its cinematic imagination : the end of Act1 with its dramatic pull back and lighting was the finest example of this for me.

But for all this Rigoletto from Mantua (which is the venture’s official title) was  not a film as we understand it. Films are not shown live (ie: as they are shot and then edited): that is something which belongs to the province of television. In the first place it is only television scheduling which would really work with a venture of this kind. I think the ‘liveness’ can be attributed to television. And there were moments when this was very apparent – bats swooping through the street where Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time (at least I think they were bats), insects crossing shots, spittle flying out of singer’s mouths. All these are examples of things which would be carefully edited out of a film, unless it was felt that they added to a shot (which the bats rather did). Then there was one moment when we had the camera nearly falling over: that was a blatant example but I have no doubt the more technically minded could add many others, despite the months of rehearsal. A ‘live film’ will not be technically perfect in the way that most films are. All these things emphasised that one was not watching a film.

So how did this affect the viewing of the opera? Did it work for the opera’s benefit? The first peculiar thing to observe is that there were many occasions when I still felt I was watching a stage set, a staged production. I think that this is very much due to my inbuilt expectations of how opera will be performed. It was added to by the fact that most of Rigoletto takes place indoors. So the opening ballroom scene in particular felt like a conventional film of a staged opera production. Beautifully filmed and exquisitely mounted, but still not partaking very much of the ‘live’. Obviously this feeling diminished when we got outside and the aforementioned bats started appearing. In terms of emotional involvement with the story, the use of close-ups does tend to increase this, but I would have to say that Rigoletto is such an emotionally involving story in the first place that I am not sure how much of a gain there was. The one place where I very definitely felt that the technical challenges were not surmounted was in the great Act 3 quartet: the two duos (Rigoletto/Gilda and Sparafucile/Maddalena) were inside and outside the building so a lot of jump cuts were needed which broke up the flow and marred the impact. Unless all the characters involved are in the same shot I tend to think this would apply to most quartets – I would think therefore that Mozart would be almost impossible to do well ‘live’. However there is no doubt that because the singers, and above all Domingo, are so competent, by and large Rigoletto from Mantua worked dramatically.

But how did it compare to a good stage version such as the one I saw a couple of months ago? (see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/musical-notes/). Obviously the comparison is difficult. The singers in Rigoletto from Mantua are all world-class, which, with every due respect and in no way impugning their excellence, the WNO ones were not. Yet despite this I was more moved, more involved, and found more depth in the stage production. There was nothing to get in the way of the story and the music, and the very fact that it was an integrated modern production with a 1920’s setting provided for me an intellectual depth and weight. In concrete terms the WNO production brought out much more clearly Rigoletto’s own cruelty in Act1 which is a keystone of the story. In Rigoletto from Mantua, which was a highly traditional production, his donning of the jester’s cap and Domingo’s playing of the role undermined this. Now I see that this is a matter of one’s preference over interpretation, but for me the opera functions on a higher level when Rigoletto’s own cruelty and function as a pimp is clearly delineated. Above all though there is something about watching live in a theatre which involves me in a way which no watching on television probably never could – I am too easily distracted, less riveted, at home (I am writing more about this in my upcoming entry on The Proms 2010).

My final judgement then is that Rigoletto from Mantua ,while hugely enjoyable, does not satisfy as opera in the way that going and experiencing a production live does. Indeed, it does not even work as well as going and watching a filmed version in a cinema. Nor does it work as film as well as a proper film of an opera would. Here the dominant art form would be film with all the pleasures and delights that involve. Again this is not to say that Rigoletto from Mantua lacked many fine cinematic elements. What it did unquestionably work as is as television. Television and liveness are born companions. There is of itself something extraordinary about knowing one is watching a live opera along with millions of other people all around the globe. When no storms of applause broke out after one of the great arias it was disconcerting, but then it was possible to imagine someone thousands of miles away clapping silently in their living-room. This is the power and one of the glories of television, unique to the medium, and genuinely inspiring because  globally shared serious art is a concept which I believe is inherently noble and of great value. It is also – and this is crucial – available to many million more people than an opera production would be for reasons of both geography and, vitally, cost: the ‘live film’ is democratic, it is politically progressive.  So while I would still maintain that to really enjoy Rigoletto one should go to an opera house and see a good production; while I would still maintain that film is not at root suited to ‘live’ transmission and that lengthy editing is essential for great film art; I would say that as television ‘live film’ is a wonderful invention which plays to some of the medium’s greatest strengths.

One thought on “Rigoletto – The ‘Live Film’

  1. ellenandjim

    It’s hard to find words to justify why watching an opera being done on stage live in one city (the Met, NYC) from inside a movie theater in another (Alexandria, Va) is more exciting, except to say it is. Our knowledge in our brains matters: that this is happening, that what we are watching on the HD screen is going on right now in real time and could stop at any moment or go wrong; all reinforced or verified by the behavior and talk of the people inbetween the acts (to us through the camera), and the close-up acting and singing complete with surtitles. Everything around us and much around them confirms the people on the stage are no longer performing for a private closed auditorium but us in real time as hundreds of auditoriums around the world.

    Although as yet those making these operas claim the productions and direction has not changed, the camera which brings all this to us makes them change because they are angled at us. Right now the choice of operas, also at the Met the use of Broadway directors and pop art techniques are being brought in more and more. Why? Because they are trying to reach that bigger audience.

    It’s a new experience. Jim and I loved the Don Giovanni we saw in a DC theater this past spring — it came from Austria:


    But we didn’t see it live. It was a film which was done in HD and originally broadcast live. This was a rerun. Well, it felt different because we knew it wasn’t live and because there were not the people on the stage talking at us inbetween. Yet because it was originally done in real time with close-ups and surtitles, it had a left-over feel of immediacy.

    We concede that what we know to be so affects us even if it’s intangible in other areas of life. So this.

    This is a new hybrid art experience.


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