Earlier this year, English National Opera launched its own cinema broadcasts and, to my extreme delight, chose to begin with David Alden’s staging of Peter Grimes, starring my very own other half, Stuart Skelton, in the title role. By my count, of the thirty-odd performances of Peter Grimes I’ve seen in my life, very nearly half of them have been in Alden’s production, and I’ve come to think of it as something of an old friend.

Sarah Noble
Sarah Noble

 At ENO’s invitation, I joined a group of patrons, friends and staff to watch the live broadcast from a very congenial little 96-seat cinema tucked into a corner of the Empire Leicester Square. There were probably paying customers there too, but I suspect not many: most sensible people, I’m sure, were enjoying the show from local cinemas in the suburbs and around the UK, not braving the Dantean hordes of Leicester Square. In any case, the theatre in question was well suited to the purpose: just as intimate as it needed to be, with excellent, if not opulent, sound and picture quality.

One of my favourite things about HD opera are the bonus featurettes. Evidently there were two of these attached to Grimes: one between Acts II and III, which I had no idea was coming and therefore, alas, managed to miss entirely, and one before the show, which was very slick and full of fabulous interviews and backstage glimpses. My only reservation was that it seemed to give away more about the opera and the production than was necessary. Maybe it’s silly to gripe about spoilers in a work that’s nearing 70, but if one of the aims of these broadcasts is to draw in those who haven’t seen the show before, why not keep a few surprises in reserve? Still, that’s a matter of personal taste.

Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) © Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes)
© Robert Workman

I thought the filming of the opera itself was basically well done, and what teething problems there were – cameras trained on the wrong person at the wrong time, or shots which left a vital character out of the frame – will no doubt be smoothed out as the ENO Screen team finds its rhythm. Generally speaking, though, shots were well chosen and the cameras well placed. Embedding a cameraman within the chorus was a particular stroke of inspiration, although I wasn’t quite so keen on the occasional “performer’s eye view” shots across blinding footlights: in an otherwise immersive experience, these sounded the Reality Klaxon just a little stridently for my liking.

Inevitably some nuances were lost in the translation from stage to screen, but others, I thought, were gained. I’ve seen this production at least a dozen times, and I swear, it’s like a twisted, Expressionist Where’s Wally, with new, fascinating details to spot every time I return to it. There’s always another glance here or gesture there to take in, not to mention Alden’s unerring knack for matching subtleties of the score to some aptly sinister bit of stage business.

Peter Grimes (English National Opera) © Robert Workman
Peter Grimes (English National Opera)
© Robert Workman

Clearly no configuration of cameras could ever hope to capture all of that in one outing, and nor can any camera replicate the freely wandering gaze of an audience member, who can always choose where or at whom to look, and when. Cameras do have their own special abilities, however. They can zero in on Ellen Orford’s face just as a tear falls, or capture the Borough’s angry faces at heart-in-mouth proximity, or even take us into the orchestra pit to watch Ed Gardner actually levitate from the podium during the Storm: all opportunities you might easily miss from the depths of the Coliseum.

It didn’t hurt that ENO chose, in this case at least, a show which not only withstands but richly rewards the tight, intense focus which comes with the high definition experience. In the theatre, without a camera or a close up in sight, this opera, in this production and with this cast, is already a remarkable piece of theatre, sensationally sung and searingly acted. Turn the cameras on and it should come as no surprise that it also makes for pretty amazing cinema. An equal substitute for the living, breathing buzz of Peter Grimes in the Coliseum? Absolutely not. But certainly a worthwhile and engrossing experience in and of itself, and an auspicious beginning to ENO’s silver screen career.

 

Sarah Noble is a freelance opera journalist and former critic whose writing has appeared in Limelight, NZ Opera News and The Opera Critic. Her musical soft spots include Wagner, Janáček, and Handelian sopranos. Previously based in Sydney, she now lives out of a suitcase between Orlando and London. Sarah blogs at Prima la musica.