Donizetti goes digital

The maverick talents of movie director Mike Figgis always seemed bound for another art form. Even his most popular Hollywood successes of the 1990s – Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs – were improbably dark works, delving with an unsentimental eye into the bleak worlds of alcoholism and police corruption. It was unlikely that commercial cinema would continue to accommodate such a singular and downbeat vision of human affairs, and so it proved. Figgis never hit such heights again in terms of popularity, his ambitions growing altogether too complex for the movies.

Opera, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter. When John Berry, artistic director of English National Opera, mentioned a possible collaboration on Donizetti’s infrequently performed work Lucrezia Borgia, which had its debut in 1834, Figgis was immediately tempted by the malevolent passions unleashed in the piece.

“An incestuous relationship, a mother who finds her son, poisons him, then unpoisons him, poisons him again, he dies – yes, that’ll do,” he says drily in a conversation between rehearsals at the Coliseum. “That sounds like opera.”

Notwithstanding Figgis’s distinguished track record of boldness and experimentation, he was insistent on making his debut in the new art form with a traditional work. “I wanted it to be clearly operatic, and from a period when opera was a very strong art form,” he says. “And no updating. The challenge for me is not so much pushing the boundaries of the avant-garde in terms of music, but wondering how to frame a traditional work to make it fresh again for an audience that is used to the genre.”

Figgis’s choice initially took Berry by surprise. He says he has become more interested than ever in approaching figures from different art forms to contribute to ENO’s rolling programme of innovative productions. “But those conversations can go either way,” he says. “Either you never hear from those people again, or the next time you meet, you go straight into the issue of repertoire. And Mike made it very clear he was not interested in doing Einstein on the Beach, but something central in the Italian repertoire.”

Figgis has just returned from Rome where he has been filming some scenes that will feature in the production as a kind of back-story to the main action. At first, he resisted the idea of using film: “I wanted to be an opera director not a film director doing a bit of opera,” he insists. But further investigation into Donizetti’s work changed his mind.

“After I had deconstructed the libretto and researched the subject, it was clear that this was a work about Lucrezia in her forties, whereas her most interesting time was between the ages of 14 and 19. I thought it would be good for the audience to know a little more about her. She had a child, probably with her father, that is the opera’s Chinatown moment. And suddenly I could see a reason for using film.”

The result is six filmed “vignettes” woven into the production, focusing on Lucrezia’s life story.

So far, so intriguing. But the company’s ambitions went further still. When it was approached by Sky Arts, one of its principal sponsors, about how to broadcast the work, it wanted to break further new ground. The result is being billed as the world’s first “quadcast” in which spectators will have four choices of ways to follow the opera: it will be broadcast live on two Sky channels, in 2D and 3D, in deferred relay on cinema screens, and in a version directed by Figgis himself, which will include interviews with people behind the scenes.

The last element is a continuation of last year’s “simulcasting” of Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème, which featured the production on stage, and the backstage frenzy behind the curtain, in parallel versions. John Cassy, channel director of Sky 3D, says that viewing figures for the backstage version exceeded those for the actual opera.

“It gave people an insight into something they hadn’t seen before,” he explains when I raise an eyebrow. “There is a real appetite for seeing how things work.”

During the live quadcast of Lucrezia on February 23, Figgis will be in a truck with several monitors before him, taking feeds from the 2D and 3D versions, as well as having control of a free cameraman who can shoot whatever the director demands on the night. He sounds like he is relishing the prospect; Berry merely points out that the technology required of the evening is “frightening” in its complexity.

I ask all three men which version they think will attract the most viewers. After a short pause, their consensus is that there will be a lot of channel-hopping. “When you watch opera on TV you switch off, or you get up to make the tea,” says Berry. “This is a way of dipping between two or three different platforms and staying engaged with the evening until the end.”

Figgis believes there is a complacent attitude towards people’s capacity to absorb complex narratives.

“I recently talked to a very bland Hollywood producer about developing a film script that was about filmmaking, and he said [adopting a cheesy American accent] ‘You know, people aren’t too interested in filmmaking’, and that is so full of bullshit, because there are more and more people interested in how things are done.

“That is the mistake that Hollywood constantly makes, as opposed to a company like HBO – it underestimates its audience. People know exactly how narrative works.”

I ask if poor Donizetti can stand all this quadcasting and zapping – is there not the danger that the integrity of the opera may be compromised? “It is pretty robust,” answers Berry. “And it’s such a gem,” echoes Figgis. “It reminds me of an adaptation I did of Miss Julie, I remember getting into the text and finding it such a relief to find such good writing. It just needed a bit of a dust-off.

“It’s the same here – you can see the look on the singers’ faces, they love doing this material. My mission is to keep it absolutely intact. The framing will make it look even more like the sparkling jewel that it is, and people will wonder why it has been so neglected.”

For John Berry, the production is a further example of ENO’s ventures into unknown territory which he believes is attracting new audiences for opera. “There is so much here in which you can smell the personality of the organisation,” he says. “And this is all about finding audiences that are broader than the traditional opera audience.” He describes the collaboration with Sky Arts as a “bespoke broadcasting project” that differs distinctively from standard on-screen coverage.

“The area of televising classical music is incredibly depressing,” he says. “We have been waiting for the right artist, who can contribute in a big and central way to these new digital and broadcasting ideas. We are not interested in just spewing out content. This feels really connected.”

Figgis, who has been a pioneer of digital experimentation in films such as Timecode and Hotel, emphasises the financial advantages of the new technology being used. “It wasn’t a case of putting out a begging bowl and asking if we could please have some crisps. We could think about going to Italy to do some filming, and it wasn’t something that was going to cripple us. And that’s down to digital equipment, which is now capable of making things look so beautiful.”

The music for the six filmed vignettes will be extracted from Donizetti’s original score, and has been separately recorded by the ENO orchestra. “I have played it to some people and asked them to guess the composer – and they have said [Ennio] Morricone.” Figgis gives a wry laugh at the anachronism – Morricone, a successful commercial film composer, was born in 1928 – but returns to the seriousness of his intent. “I want this to be a seamless experience, and above all for people to be utterly seduced by Donizetti’s beautiful music.”

‘Lucrezia Borgia’ opens at ENO, London, on January 31, with Claire Rutter in the title role, and will be broadcast live on Sky Arts channels on February 23.

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