We’re still at the point where talking about live broadcasts from venues like La Scala, Glyndebourne and the National Theatre involves reviewing the medium as much as the performance.1 Broadcasts like this version of The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Turn of the Screw, sit at the centre of a long-standing argument about the status of live performance. On one side, Peggy Phelan insists that art with live bodies connects us with what is most essential about us as humans, that it can even go some way towards healing the fractured and alienated conditions of modern life. On the other, Philip Auslander argues that our culture is so mediated and networked that even live performance is inevitably viewed through the frame we use to watch TV or locate rock-stars on the huge video screens at concerts.
Performance theory aside, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that these broadcasts aren’t happening in a vacuum.2 The emphasis on “the live experience” has increased as live theatre and live performance have ceased to be the major ways we consume drama and music. (Film writing’s stress on “the proper cinema experience” in the face of DVDs and online streaming might make theatre specialists feels solidarity or schadenfreude, depending on the time of day and the funding cycle.) In other words, the extra cachet of a production at Glyndebourne, of actually being there, is partly dependent on how many people won’t/ can’t be there. If these broadcasts were successful enough that they became the normal way of consuming opera, the audience actually present in the auditorium would find themselves demoted to the status of “studio audience”, packed in to provide applause cues for the intended spectators at home.
Glyndebourne’s live stream walks this line carefully, providing a sound feed from the auditorium for quite a while before the performance, so you can hear the chatter and tuning-up. (A little difficult to enthuse about how cool it is to hear these noises spilling out of your laptop speakers without undercutting the point by admitting that it would be better to be there. But it is exciting.) The interval feed is equally ambiguous: it switches from the stage to a camera high up on the flagpole above the gardens, which for this performance were covered in a gentle drizzle. Pure English pastoral, with the opera-goers wandering tinily around the lawns, framed by the trees and fields beyond. The camera gives you a privileged view of the whole scene, but also hints at how you can only enjoy the vista like this because you aren’t part of it.
The production itself is absolutely stunning. Janácek’s loose, cinematic construction is deftly handled by Melly Still, with Vladimir Jurowski bringing great feeling from the score without a hint of schmaltz. Maxine Doyle’s choreography is fluid and witty, whilst the costumes (by Dinah Collins) are punky and allusive. The whole piece plays with the connections between the animal and human world, and between our world and the past, without drawing heavy-handed analogies. It is a pleasure to follow Lucy Crowe’s Vixen through her journey, and she sings the role with guts and gusto. It has not been an altogether popular production, not least with the huffy Glyndebourne reactionaries who have found plenty to be affronted about in this raunchy, grotty vision of Janácek’s world. I was totally enthralled.
[The Cunning Little Vixen is available to stream online until 22nd June.]
1 If you don’t feel that “we” are at any such point, and think it’s a lot of tedious jaw which gets in the way of the show, skip the next three paragraphs whilst “we” pontificate about the interesting cultural moment “we” find “ourselves” in.
2 Well, apart from that regrettable Magic Flute populated by household appliances, that really was director’s opera gone too far, sweetie.
Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield