Lucrezia Borgia: Opera Live in 3D

'Quadcast' collaboration between ENO, Sky 3D, Sky Arts HD, DCD Media

25 February 2011 1.5 stars

Lucrezia BorgiaThe event was trumpeted on ENO's website as 'The world's first live 3D opera': another dimension added to the now-familiar 'Live from the Met' format; another milestone in media history. Given the attention (some would say controversy) attracted by the production itself since its premiere on 31 January, this particular night at the cinema was never likely to pass without raising hackles in some quarters. But the live 3D broadcast of Mike Figgis's Lucrezia Borgia from the Coliseum made uncomfortable viewing for one entirely avoidable reason: the volume was unnecessarily – in many places unbearably – loud. Those inured to the grumblings of conservative opera-goers, please take note: as someone under 30, even known to frequent nightclubs, I tick at least some of those hallowed 'new, younger audience' boxes – and I'm certainly all for communicating the full, visceral experience of opera. Even with this background, though, my 3D experience was plain deafening, making the singing unpleasant to listen to and flattening out any sense of dynamic contrast in Donizetti's superbly dramatic opera.

There were other damaging technical issues. The couple of nauseating lurches into 3D focus were presumably teething problems; but too many shots were slightly blurred, or illogically focused (for example, on a silent member of the chorus in the background, rather than on the character singing) or just poorly composed. The penultimate shot of the opera was a prime exhibit: an otherwise moving close-up of Claire Rutter's Lucrezia, distraught after poisoning her own son, was ruined by the casual intrusion of body parts belonging to a chorus member accidentally placed next to her.

The ENO production contributed its own, overflowing, can of worms (reviewed here). Figgis's three 'contextual' films (sex-obsessed and violent, with heaving breasts as far as the eye could see) are – to put it gently – not for all tastes. Nor did they interact meaningfully with what little happened on stage: the combination of projection screen and pre-recorded soundtrack separates them almost entirely from the audiovisual experience of Donizetti's opera. In the 3D broadcast we lose the visual cue of the projection screen being unfurled, and the cinema soundtrack doesn't differentiate technically between Donizetti's music and that of Figgis's films. But film and stage nonetheless remain visual worlds apart: only the stage action is filmed in 3D; the films remain in the comparative lo-tech of 'mere' HD. After the second and third films, we're plunged, in 3D, immediately back into the orchestra pit. In other circumstances, these shots of synchronized bowing among the black-tie fraternity might intrude catastrophically into the onstage atmosphere; here, with the films already preventing any sustained sense of atmosphere on stage, the effect is simply disorientating.

Jammed in, then, between two discordant layers of filming and their attendant technological mishaps, and presented in a staging so devoid of ideas as to barely merit the term, Donizetti's opera was assigned what might (kindly) be called an equivocal role in proceedings. This was a shame not least because there was clearly some good singing on offer. Rutter, in the title role, was undeniably impressive in the coloratura passages, her feats of stamina making up for moments in which beauty of tone may have been lacking; and Elizabeth DeShong's Maffio Orsini coupled a rich, flexible mezzo-soprano with genuine dramatic presence. Michael Fabiano was touching as Gennaro (particularly in his duet with Orsini), although occasional strain in the upper register was exaggerated by the cinema's extreme volume; Alistair Miles was a resonant and suitably nasty Alfonso.

All this begs the question: what were we cinema-goers supposed to be watching? The most (perhaps only?) successful elements of Figgis's staging in the Coliseum – the use of marionette-theatre-like proscenium arches in the final two scenes, and the closing 'last supper' tableau – were irreparably damaged in 3D. For one obvious thing, nothing on stage was real enough to survive close-up inspection in three dimensions (the plastic banquet supplied quantities of bathos at the worst possible moment), and any contrast to the intentionally 'artificial' stage-within-a-stage framing device was completely erased. For another, the films, shot with care in a mixture of documentary and period drama styles, looked both more real than the opera (since the stage props looked so artificial) and less visually striking (since the opera alone was presented in 3D).

In a short interview clip before curtain-up, Figgis suggested that Lucrezia in 3D offered a chance to experience what it's like to see a 'proper opera'. I'm not sure what his idea of a 'proper opera' might be (on the basis of this production, it's not at all clear that he's comfortable with the basic idea of musical theatre). But I am sure that this 3D broadcast wasn't a good advert for such a thing. Nor, for all the talking-heads chatter about democratizing the art form, did going to see it cost any less than many tickets at the Coliseum. Perhaps £20 was a fair price for a one-off seat in media history. But let's hope the future of 3D opera holds closer, more imaginative engagement between its constituent media – that's what I'd call 'proper opera'.

By Flora Willson

Photos © Stephen Cummiskey