Glyndebourne on the StrandDate: 22 August 2010
Having missed Michael Grandage’s acclaimed production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, I took the opportunity of seeing what all the fuss was about at a screening in the magnificent courtyard of Somerset House on Friday evening.
This was a tape, not a live broadcast, and the screen could have been twice as large, really, to do the setting any sort of justice. But the sound reproduction was good and Paule Constable’s lighting beyond beautiful.
But the experience was curiously unsatisfactory. I see the point of Glyndebourne selling DVDs of successful productions, but I don’t see the point of watching a recorded performance with hundreds of other people.
Saturday night in the courtyard must have been different, as The Rake’s Progress was transmitted live from the Sussex Downs, and that surely held the same sort of excitement that the live transmissions of the National Theatre have provoked around the country.
The Grandage Billy Budd has established the director as a force in world opera, it seems, but it’s no better than a great revival I saw a few years ago in Copenhagen in the old opera house.
This, above all Britten works, has the best, and the most, singing roles for men, and the cast was truly outstanding.
The occasion felt odd, though, people assembling to watch something “dead” as if they were attending Glyndebourne itself, huddling on blankets and cushions on the unforgiving stone surface, gamely pouring champagne and fiddling with canapes and smoked salmon.
The weather was cloudy with gusty winds; it must be an absolute nightmare if it rains. But toilet and bar facilities are pretty good, and a girl I spoke to in a bar queue, who had previously seen a film and a live concert here, reckoned the Glyndebourne experience held up better than either of those for her.
I just wonder, though, about this new fad for screening theatre and opera away from its source of origin. Surely the money involved would be much better spent on providing live events on the doorstep of the people taking this vicarious pleasure in “exclusive”, hard-to-get-to productions by our flagship companies?
Still, these days, with theatres like the Traverse in Edinburgh beginning to explore live-to-screen performances around Scotland, it’s clear we are in some transitional, experimental phase with the exploitation of live theatre.
The one key factor, though, is that the audience at these screened events is never in “the same room” as the performance. Participation is therefore, by definition, second hand and voyeuristic.
And unless we are going to start re-defining what we mean by “theatre” altogether, the live-to-screen performance is a travesty of the art form and, in the case of subsidisied theatres, a betrayal of the taxpayers’ investment.
The Gyndebourne at Somerset House weekend was sponsored by Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail.
It was a fairly enjoyable informal occasion, I suppose, though the sponsors and bigwigs had a roped off area with soft cushioned seats to sit on; they were led from the interior of Somerset House, ten minutes after the screening was due to begin, by Viscount Rothermere himself and his delightful wife Claudia (who takes a real interest in the theatre).
Ironically, the only person wearing a dinner suit in the entire place was the quirky little newspaper vendor at Belsize Park Station who used to sell me the Evening Standard every day when Associated still owned the title.
The least Rothermere could have done was invite him to join the private party…