The Royal Opera House and BAFTA already have rather a good relationship. You may have noticed that a certain little awards ceremony is held at the grand construction in Covent Garden each year, and so it was only fitting that the first of this year’s live cinema screenings from the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies should be broadcast at the film company’s headquarters on Piccadilly. Friends and colleagues of both establishments gathered at the launch, sipping on Ruinart champagne as they waited to see Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s 1965 ballet, Romeo & Juliet transmitted around the country.
The atmosphere was a modern hybrid of pre-show buzz and pre-film ease; the glowing anticipation of seeing artists perform at the peak of their profession, live, from an institution of global renown, was mixed with the relaxing knowledge that you will have a comfy seat and won’t have to worry so much about stifling the inconvenient tickle that inevitably appears in your throat as the performance starts.
Furthermore, most ballets do not tend to be introduced by Lord Voldemort. But what are the arts for, if not to surprise as they entertain? It transpires that Ralph Fiennes is a huge ballet fan, and as he stood in front of a mildly bemused but utterly thrilled auditorium, he explained that he was going to relinquish ‘straight acting’ because “I am an aspiring ballet dancer, and it’s not only every girl’s dream to play Juliet.” Joking aside, Fiennes is well aware of the value of live relays, having had his performance in Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman transmitted to cinemas from the National Theatre earlier this year. He was in attendance, he said with adorably excited gusto, “to champion the Royal Ballet and Opera live and on the big screen.”
These live cinema screenings are now a regular fixture for the Royal Opera House. As John Fulljames (Associate Director of Opera) explained to the assembled guests, they “have transported ballet into a new life, bringing a new sense of drama and realism to the world of ballet.” If you look at the figures, it really is quite impressive how far this medium allows the arts to reach: last year, three quarters of a million people attended screenings; one night, the numbers even topped Skyfall, the most successful Bond film of all time. Those who continue to label opera and ballet as elitist might want to ruminate on that for a while.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Macmillan’s Shakespearean masterpiece is often regarded as the Royal Ballet’s calling card. Its drama, its vivacity, its tragedy, all in Macmillan’s inimitable style and all requiring the dancers to prove themselves as actors too, heighten both the difficulty, and the effect, of the piece. And not only was the half-centurial benchmark worth noting, but Sir Kenneth, as his wife attests, “really loved film,” which makes this cinematic collaboration all the more special. The curtain rose in Covent Garden to show Sarah Lamb and Steve McRae in the title roles, and these two esteemed stars lead the company in an electric rendition of this ill-fated tale.
The next screening will be a mixed bill including the world premiere of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Subsequently, audiences can see crowd favourite Lauren Cuthbertson star in The Nutcracker at Christmas, the first staging of Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons for 50 years on the Royal Opera House stage, plus Liam Scarlett’s first full length ballet in spring next year. Opera-wise, there will be new productions of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, not to mention, Verdi’s La traviata and Massenet’s tragedy, Werther.
Interviewed by Fullbright on launch night, star bass-baritone Erwin Schrott described the “big responsibility” of performing in “the frickin’ best opera house in the world.” And whether or not the ultimate experience is to be had in Covent Garden itself, the live screenings quite simply create the opportunity for people to witness what happens on the Royal Opera House’s stage if (for whatever reason) they can’t be there. “If that possibility is brought to you by a cinema screen,” says Schrott, “God bless you.” And Amen to that.
For more information on forthcoming cinema screenings of ROH productions visit the website.