Opinion – Nabucco live stream

Feb 15 2013 | By More

Hugh Kerr reviews the Festival Theatre’s live stream debut

Nabucco (Act II, Scene I) in close-up: Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska). Photo: Rudy Amisano

Nabucco (Act II, Scene I) in close-up: Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska). Photo: Rudy Amisano

On Wednesday the Festival Theatre joined the increasing numbers of cinemas which live stream opera performances.

How would the cinematic experience stand up to the live one – and can the Festival Theatre really challenge cinemas for sound and vision? Hugh Kerr, who will admit to having been an opera fan for over 40 years, went along for the Annals.

“I have seen the future of opera and I am worried!” This was my first reaction to the splendid cinematic-opera debut at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. The opera was Nabucco and it was transmitted live from La Scala, Milan.

Nabucco‘s plot concerns the Israelites freeing themselves from Babylon. In Italy, however, it is often interpreted it as a plea for Italian freedom. In particular Va Pensiero, the slave’s chorus, became the country’s unofficial national anthem.

This La Scala production, by Daniele Abbado, is updated to a Holocaust setting. In the title role, veteran Italian baritone Leo Nucci shows great power and authority. He is superbly backed by a largely non-Italian cast. Of particular note are Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, Nabucco’s elder daughter, and Vitalij Kowaljow as Zaccaria, high priest of the Jews.

Although among Verdi’s earliest operas, Nabucco is full of great arias and already displays the mastery which was to make him the greatest opera composer of all.

Abbado’s simple sets and backdrop videos work well on screen – although according to some critics they look drab in the opera house. Which only highlights the fact that opera in the cinema is a very different art form from the live experience.

Close-ups emphasise the drama
Nabucco (Act II, Scene I). Photo: Rudy Amisano

Nabucco (Act II, Scene I). The full stage. Photo: Rudy Amisano

In many ways the cinema transmissions are superior. In the cinema, close-ups emphasise the drama, while overtures can be made visually interesting with shots of orchestral players.You can have interval interviews with the singers or conductors – although personally I prefer a drink at the bar and a discussion with fellow opera goers.

The interval buzz at Nabucco was that the production was superb but also that the experience of watching opera in the Festival Theatre was enjoyable. In the auditorium the audience certainly behaved as if they were watching it live in an opera house, applauding the arias and staying to applaud the curtain calls right to the end.

The Festival Theatre has already proved its worth as an opera house – it is the Edinburgh home of Scottish Opera and host to many opera companies. With the addition of the biggest digital screen in Scotland – and viewed from the dress circle – it proved a great setting for cine-opera. The quality of the high definition transmission is superb with great sound and picture clarity. Overall, an experience which is superior to the Cameo or Filmhouse

It does have to be said that the seats are not as comfy – two and half hours of Verdi was fine but six hours of Wagner might be more daunting. There were also one or two technical glitches. Lasting a few seconds these were presumably satellite problems of the kind you also get with the Met broadcasts.

Nabucco (Act II, Scene II): Nabucco (Leo Nucci), Fenena (Veronica Simeoni). Photo: Rudy Amisano

Nabucco (Act II, Scene II): Nabucco (Leo Nucci), Fenena (Veronica Simeoni). Photo: Rudy Amisano

So why, then, the worry? My concern is that the experience is so good that the opera audiences may forgo live opera for the cinematic version. In a recent interview, the great American singer Marilyn Horne said this is already happening in the USA where live opera audiences are declining due to the Met transmissions.

However the Met are making $10 million a year profit from live broadcasts and reaching a wider audience. Covent Garden also is beginning to transmit some operas to cinemas live but again still sells out most live performances.

The real threat is, I suspect, to smaller regional or national companies such as Scottish Opera. It has already been struggling for audiences in recent years partly due to cuts in its budget and being able to offer only five operas a year. After all, if you can see the best singers in the world live from the top opera houses in the world, why go to a Scottish Opera production which inevitably will not be as good?

In April I will be putting the live-v-cinema question to the test when I attend this same production of Nabucco in its transfer to Covent Garden when Placido Domingo will replace Nucci in the title role. The previous Thursday’s performance will also be streamed around the world as if live – ironically, including Edinburgh’s Cameo.

The real question will not be whether Domingo or Nucci makes the better Nabucco, but how the two experiences will compare. At the Festival Theatre, all seats were £25, while my upper slips seats at Covent Garden are a mere £15. Will I be disappointed and miss the close-ups or will it be a triumph for the experience of really live opera? Therein lies the future of live opera itself.

The Festival Theatre has two further opera live-streams booked:
Falstaff (Giuseppe Verdi) Live from Opéra National de Paris, Tue 12 Mar 2013, 6.30pm
Rigoletto (Giuseppe Verdi) Live from Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre, Tue 9 July 2013, 8.30pm
All tickets £25/£23 (conc)

The Royal Operahouse Covent Garden performance of Nabucco on Thursday 25 April will be broadcast unedited on Monday 29 April to Picturehouse cinemas around the UK, uncluding the Edinburgh Cameo.
Listings and participating cinemas: www.picturehouses.co.uk



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  1. Thom Dibdin says:

    Edited to include details of Cameo stream – and amend that it is a pre-recorded not live stream.