The UK's leading producer of world-class opera, the English National Opera (ENO) presents a season of magical performances in the Australian premiere season of ENO Screen – a unique cinematic experience that will screen in Australian capital and regional cities throughout 2015. Performed in English by the stars of the English National Opera and filmed live at the London Coliseum theatre in stunning multi-camera HD, ENO Screen will bring the distinctive majesty of the English National Opera to Australian cinema screens for the very first time.
The chorus against the lovers at Violetta's opening party
The plot is simple. The story is based on La dame aux Camélias, a play adapted from Alexandre Dumas's novel, its new title meaning 'the fallen woman', but the opera explores what this might mean. Parisian courtesan Violetta (Elizabeth Zharhoff) and young nobleman Alfredo (Ben Johnson) fall in love at her party, although her lover is supposedly Baron Douphoi (Matthew Hargreaves). She retreats to the country to be with him, selling her belongings to fund their rural life. His father Giorgio (Anthony Michaels-Moore) arrives and convinces her to leave because her relationship with Alfredo is tarnishing his daughter by association, jeopardizing her engagement. Alfredo assumes Violetta has betrayed him, and crashes the party where she is now to be found on the Baron's arm and chaos ensues. His father eventually tells him the truth. Meanwhile Violetta is close to death with consumption. Alfredo returns just in time to be reunited with her and witness her death.
The production is minimalist. No scenery is used and the only furniture is a single chair. The red curtains provide the most tactile element of the physical environment. Characters hide behind them, wrap themselves in them, or even tear one down (Alfredo) at a moment of high drama. The conceit allows characters to 'peel back layers' as they progress through the show, even allowing Alfredo to mime this action at one point (somewhat unconvincingly). Red is the overarching colour theme of the show, switching to blue at tense moments. Violetta begins the show in a red dress, which by the end has been assumed by Flora (Clare Presland). All the other characters are in black, except the Baron, whose white tie consequently stands out. The combination of colours reflects the cards which are used to represent the gambling in group scenes, and tie the production together. The supposedly uncluttered approach makes us focus on the quality of singing and performance more, but does make it harder to express the move to the countryside and back, and present a challenge when translated onto film, a medium where lavish settings are more usual.
You will know half the music, whether you realised its source or not. La Traviata is one of Verdi's masterpieces, and we bounce from one famous tune to another. It therefore has to be musically well-executed in order not to sound painful. Luckily, it is. The orchestra play well, with a rich sound and good tempo which both translate well to film. Elizabeth Zharhoff carries off the fiendish part of Violetta magnificently. Singing full operatic arias whilst also acting dying of consumption is no mean feat, and yet she remains believable. The illness is obvious at the start, but we perhaps lose it as a plot thread during Act 2, but by the end I defy anyone not to be moved by her poignant death. The staging, leaving her alone on the stage at this point, sharpens the wretched isolation of her illness and death, a fate we can only look on at in misery, alongside the other characters. These are also all well-sung; there is no weak link, from the small cameo roles to Alfredo and Giorgio themselves. This uniformly strong cast helps increase the sense that this is everybody's tragedy. Occasionally enunciation is unclear, and the surtitles ENO now run are of course not shown; a minor issue. The chorus does not appear much, but is strong and vibrant when it is there. The cuts are noticeable to those who know and love the full show though, as the minimalist production leaves no room for the grand carnival scenes and other big set pieces. The party in Act 2 is particularly striking. As the scene descends into nightmareish chaos, playing cards are thrown around, feeling almost like the Queen of Hearts scene in Alice in Wonderland! The mess is left, a mass of detritus and debris which highlights the sad decline of the situation, for both Violetta and Alfredo.
Opera on screen is becoming increasingly popular, with the New York Met and Glyndebourne both doing it. As an experience, watching live opera on screen is slightly bizarre. The camera plays various tricks with us, for example hiding Alfredo's unexpected appearance in the auditorium until the last minute, the filming accentuating the production values. Closeup shots of characters allow us to appreciate their acting skills, but possibly also highlight some of the absurdity of opera, where the physical act of singing disturbs emotional gestures. Makeup and props are designed to work under lights and be seen from a distance, so there are occasional moments where it doesn't quite work on screen. We sometimes lose the relational understanding of what is going on across the stage, with our focus and interpretation of a scene driven by what the editors chose to show us. It is a multi-camera film, camera angles vary and are usually sensitively cut together, but frequent changes in shot can make it hard to settle into a scene when one is used to experiencing theatre in a more linear fashion. The HD quality is excellent though, a feast for the eyes. For more about ENO Screen in general, see here.
The screening was filmed live at ENO on 11th March 2015. The production is a revival; widely acclaimed in general, it was even shortlisted for an Olivier award in 2013. Running time is 1 hour 55 minutes, with no interval. A trailer is available online, which will hopefully be enough to tempt you to watch the whole thing. Definitely worth it.
Click here to see participating cinemas and session details.