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Who could resist the chance to go backstage and watch an opera company at full stretch during an actual performance? Artist and film-maker Lynne Marsh has done exactly that. Opera North's production of Verdi's La traviata, directed by Alessandro Talevi and conducted by Gianluca Marcianò, opened at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, in September 2014. The revival scheduled for this autumn has been postponed, along with the rest of Opera North's next season, but we've got Marsh's film, made in 2015, to tide us over.
There's no spoken commentary. Part slow television, part fly-on-the-wall documentary, it shows the backstage crew at work during a complete performance, in real time (but without the intervals). It cuts between three main locations – the wings, a corridor in the dressing-room area, and the stage manager's booth, and though we can hear the performance, the acoustic and volume levels change accordingly. Most of it is, inevitably, in semi-darkness, but Marsh makes effective use of such light sources as there are.
Unflappable professionalism and concentration is what gets everyone through. One thing the film underlines is just how much sheer waiting is involved. But there are lots of delightful cameo moments as well. We see and hear the Act I off-stage band at close quarters. An assistant shepherds the chorus coming off-stage in Act I, telling them 'watch your feet'. Tenor Ji-Min Park and harpist position themselves for Alfredo's offstage contributions to Violetta's 'Sempre Libera'.
At the start of Act II, Marsh's camera watches the shadows on a wall in the wings. A wardrobe assistant delivers a costume for the next scene to one of the dressing rooms. Dressers and others in the wings jig, sway and beat time to the music. One of the entertainers at Flora's party in scene two puts on his enormous bull's head. Ji-Min Park takes a quick sip of water (I assume) before making his entrance.
During Act III, a stage-hand with a little time to spare takes a few moments to watch a bit of football on television in the props room. The masqueraders assemble in the wings, while the players in the off-stage band once more take their places; later, we watch the music stands being folded and packed away. We catch the stage manager, who has been calmly efficient throughout, smiling broadly at an out-of-shot colleague.
By turning our experience of an opera staging inside-out, Marsh gives us a powerful reminder of just how much the performers depend on the off-stage back-up. The emotional intensity played out on stage is counterbalanced by the production team's focused dedication to the job in hand. Who knows when we'll be able to experience live opera again? But when we do, it won't be just the singers, orchestra and conductor I'll be applauding.
Copyright © 2 July 2020