Sunday, 2 January 2011

How film changes opera - Rigoletto, Mantua

Since filmed opera is everywhere, maybe it's time we really thought  about what really happens when a production is filmed. Don't assume that film reflects what's really going on! Filming is a whole extra layer of interpretation, it can enhance or destroy. We need to think about it carefully. 
Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni was a fascinating exercise in how alert, flexible staging can bring out the alert, flexible character in an opera. Seeing the filmed version was a completely different experience. It was as if they'd used a single fixed position camera and shot ahead, regardless of what was actually going on. Haven't film techniques progressed since 1935? Don Giovanni gets away with things because he's always ahead of the game, shifting quickly. This film was so narrow focus that there wasn't any context, just soulless anonymity.Result, dull and witless, which is not Don Giovanni at all.

Live on stage, the scene where the Commendatore gets killed was claustrophobic, the old man trapped just as Don G will be trapped later. On film, nothing. Nowhere the elegant panache that was visible on stage, only relentless one-dimensional flatness.  Nearly everything shot in close ups, which benefit Finley and Kate Royal (especially). But there was so much more to the "real" Glyndebourne Don Giovanni than this. If audiences forever think Glyndebourne did Don G as The Third Man, it's the fault of this film, not what really happened.

In complete contrast, what fun were repeat viewing of RAI's Verdi Rigoletto from Mantua First time round the opera was spread out in three parts over two days, to accurately follow stage directions. Result, dramatic thrust was lost. Experienced as "normal" opera without breaks or mindless chatter, this Rigoletto is infinitely more enjoyable. This time round it flows naturally, like an exquisitely superior movie, beautifully shot, framed and lit, with, of course the ultimate in background stage design. Real palace, real tapestries, real frescoes and real gold gilding. The film makers also had the brains not to overdo the decor at the expense of the drama. If you really want to look at the ceilings, freeze frame in your own time. Indeed, in the Third Act, the setting makes sense - Rigoletto and Gilda really can see and hear what's going on nearby without being spotted. They're across an alley. No contorted stage design needed.

Bellocchio, Storaro and Andermann, who created this unique Rigoletto, are film makers who think big, and in cinematic terms. I don't think there will ever be a filmed version as expansive and as ambitious as this, so it needs to be seen for that sake. Because the creators are movie people, they also add insights conventional stage might not do.  The Personenregie benefits. The group ensembles in the First Act are well blocked and thoughtful.  The shifting angles mean you can feel how the group moves. Rigoletto is almost drowned in the mass.

The flexibility of film also helps expand character. Gilda, for example, is so odd she's probably nuts. Yet here she's seen as a product of a distorted religious upbringing, so the martyrdom seems to come naturally. Beloved Placido may not be technically perfect vocally, but neither is Rigoletto. No need for a stagey humpback. Domingo creates character with his voice. That's what makes him interesting - a man who overcomes obstacles. Close ups are used sparingly but for definite purpose, as the film makers resist the temptation to make him the sole centre of attention. And my goodness, is Domingo good as an actor !

Before this Rigoletto was screened first time there was a lot of negativity about what was "real" technologically.  The massive publicity didn't help either. But seeing this Mantua Rigoletto several times over in more relaxed circumstances reveals it as much better than it seemed at first. It's cinema, not "opera" with the usual constraints. And on that level, it works magnificently. Catch it again until Saturday online and on demand and get the eventual DVD. It's more enjoyable the more you watch, and appreciate the film making skill that went into it.

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