There will be high drama at the Cinestar Marina Mall tonight if Natalie Dessay has anything to do with it - and she most certainly will. The French soprano, who appears in the title role in the New York Met's Live in HD production of the opera Lucia Di Lammermoor, which will be screened in the capital this evening as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, has effectively declared war on old-fashioned opera acting.
The 45-year-old singer's cultural offensive is aimed at the stiff, wooden performances that once gave opera a bad name. This style of delivery, dubbed "park and bark" by its critics, leaves the singers semi-stationary, addressing the audience rather than their fellow characters and simulating emotions with histrionic and superficial gestures.
The outmoded style has long been drifting out of fashion in the more forward-looking opera houses, but with the arrival of live streaming of opera to cinemas it faces being consigned into oblivion altogether. As anyone who attends tonight's screening of Donizetti's Lucia will see, a new character-driven, mobile acting style - with Dessay as its guiding light - is making its mark, with a debt to cinema as much as to live theatre.
That this change partly originates in the cinema should come as no surprise - more people now see productions by the New York Met on screen than in person. But in mimicking the more dynamic, streamlined approach of cinema, this new take on opera has brought about some soul searching as to exactly how it should be acted. Does this more vivid style come with the risk of opera losing some of its ability to communicate musically rather than visually? And is it really fair to judge opera singers by the standards of the conventional stage?
Dessay clearly thinks it is. Branding herself a "singing actress", she is known for the energy and commitment she brings to her performances; in fact, she initially trained as an actress before realising, at 20 and to her surprise, how good her voice was.
Dessay's eagerness for change is easy to understand. Poor acting in opera is traditionally treated with the sort of indulgence it would never be allowed in the straight theatre. Many singers still address themselves to the audience in scenes where they are supposed to be interacting with other characters, a practice that could get a non-singing dialogue actor booed offstage. And it is still not uncommon in opera to find a dramatic repertoire of hammy hand gestures that today look as Victorian as hooped skirts. Dessay offers something different. Her New York Met interpretation of Lucia Di Lammermoor is nigh on legendary already, with Variety commenting that she showed "a visceral depth... not likely seen or heard since the days of Callas".
The opera's lurid plot isn't the most likely vehicle for understated acting, of course. Its storyline follows the Scottish noblewoman Lucia as she descends into murder and madness after being forced to marry against her will and then being insulted at the altar by the man she really loves. This schlock horror story hinges on a famous mad scene, where Lucia emerges on stage distracted and bloodied with a knife in her hand. While it is intensely dramatic visually and musically, this scene is too often underpowered, with the singer playing Lucia using little more than unfocused onstage wandering and some singing to people who aren't there to signify her character's madness. To be fair, the role doesn't necessarily require a great deal more than this, simply because the music does all the work. It expresses Lucia's delirium through a passionate, ornate vocal score packed with coloratura trills and athletic runs, signifying a grief-stricken loss of mental control while demanding exactly the opposite from the singer.
In Dessay's performance in the Met's production, however, she underlines Lucia's deranged state with a highly physical, bravura interpretation involving screams, a bloodstained wedding dress and even a roll down some stairs. If this sounds over the top, bear in mind that the woman has just murdered somebody and so has every right to rave a little, while the singer's actions are stretching to match music of passionate intensity. Despite these method acting-style tics, Dessay's gestures are still relatively controlled, with the use of close-up cameras in her screened performances allowing nuanced facial expressions, rather than exaggerated stylised gestures designed to be decipherable by people in the back row.
To understand what Dessay is rebelling against, you can compare her performance with those on YouTube by Joan Sutherland, the great Australian soprano largely responsible for Lucia Di Lammermoor's comeback from relative obscurity in the late 1950s. Stately and rather too formidable-looking for a young bride who has become unhinged, Sutherland seems to see Lucia's mad scene solely as a showcase for her astonishing voice, creating a scene that is aurally stunning but, because of her mannered acting, remarkably tepid.
But is it helpful to compare such performances with those of stage actors? Critics of the new breed of "singing actors" contend they undervalue music's role in creating dramatic tension. The critics also regard stage actors as an inappropriate model. The two groups work under such drastically different conditions, after all, with singers subject to far greater constraints. Unlike dialogue actors, opera singers cannot decide how rapidly to deliver their lines or when to pause - these are all dictated by the score. A conductor can quicken or slow tempos to an extent, but the amount of musical leeway is inevitably limited, giving singers less room to play with and personalise their roles. Opera houses are also far larger than most theatres, and small gestures and subtle facial expressions can easily be lost in the distance between singer and audience. It is hardly surprising, then, that a more stylised, expressive way of acting developed where emotions are signified through gestures, rather than conveyed through Robert De Niro-style immersion in a role. With its language of close-ups, it is inevitable that cinema acting, even when dreadful, seems much more understated.
And then there's the question of the music. Sutherland's old-school performance of Lucia's madness is still compelling simply because her mastery of the score is so total. Operas are not simply plays where everybody sings, they exist in a narrow territory between concert recital and theatre where characterisation comes as much from notes on a page as from a performer's development of character. Ask opera fans whether vocal or acting skills are more important, and most would say the former.
At the same time, no great opera singer really earns the accolade without also possessing acting skills. One major reason why Maria Callas's performances remain the standard opera singers aspire to is that her exquisite musicianship was matched with a sense of dramatic conviction that set audiences alight. And just like any performances, operas need to be constantly reinterpreted for new audiences if they are going to be anything more than elaborate museum curiosities dusted off for the pleasure of the conservative. If Dessay and her contemporaries' focus on acting can help shake opera out of its cosy conventions, to create dramas that delight the eyes and mind as much as the ears, then all power to them.