Saturday, December 6, 2014

1st Night: Così Fan Tutte with Sizzle

Scene from 1st Night
grabbed from The New York Times
Who knew there was a genre of opera movies set on grand British estates? After I happened across Quartet on Netflix, the service suggested 1st Night, another movie about romance among opera singers who are preparing for a performance on a lavish estate; its spacious grounds include a charming forest, just perfect for secret rendezvous.

This movie came out in 2013, and American critics panned it. In fact, they were quite condescending about how insipid and unrealistic it is. I think they missed the point. The issue is spelled out in a bar scene in the movie. A youthful director explains that he wants to mount a production of Mozart's ever-popular comic opera Così Fan Tutte that is meaningful, that shows how the emotions of the lovers are universal and how the play is relevant to modern life. A more experienced tenor says no, this opera is all about style, not substance—and he's right. Così was Mozart's idea of a delightful confection, not written to bring insight or emotional release, but to create an excuse for great singers to deliver bright and pleasant music. So, in order to enjoy this movie, you first have to be able to accept the idea of romantic farce, and not expect too much.

Secondly, you need to like music. What got my attention was the quality of the voices, along with the quality of lip-synching. You may never have heard of Richard E. Grant (who plays a wealthy British industrialist and frustrated opera singer) or Julian Ovenden (who plays an aspiring opera singer who has a way with women), but if you watch much British TV, you'll recognize their faces. You know they are not really singers, but they, and the other actors, belt out the songs in such a convincing manner that the music takes on new life. Full disclosure: I've never liked this opera—it's frivolous and stylized—but the movie made me realize what wonderful and joyous music it presents. It made me realize I was taking the opera too seriously. The story is just an excuse to show off beautiful singing, and the intention of the movie is to refresh your enjoyment of music you may already know well. The only thing that disappointed me was that the unseen singers were not given more recognition; their names don't appear until far into the credits, and their faces are not shown at all. It was their recorded performances that really made this movie attractive, as well as rich and lively orchestral music.

The problem with opera is that it is static. Whether sumptuous or spare, the sets are clunky and confining. Modern opera singers are skillful actors, but they are principally concerned with the technical difficulties of rendering the music, and they have a tendency to stand in a line across the stage like kids at a recital. Any movie director who loves opera is bound to think, "If only I could inject space, movement, and emotion" into their favorite opera.

In 1st Night, Mozart's music is enhanced by being staged in a real garden, a real wood, a real ballroom. Since the actors don't have to worry about their voices, they move around in their environments, and actors are better at acting that even the best singers. They are able to portray what singers can only express.

Which brings us to Sarah Brightman. I hate to admit I've been living under a rock, but I didn't know about this multi-faceted entertainer and have never seen one of her shows. In this movie, she is absolutely convincing as the opera's music conductor; her only singing is with a chorus she is supposed to be directing during the set up scenes, but it is quite beautiful. Her acting is energetic and sexy, but not over the top.

The music of Così is refreshed by being remixed to fit a new plot, one that mirrors the opera in some ways. For instance, a fight between lovers in the movie precedes the rehearsal of an angry duet in the opera; a chase scene in the woods reflects the energy of a vigorous orchestral interlude.

I listened to this whole movie twice because the music is so beautiful, but it took a sumptuous production, a lively script, subtle direction, and convincing acting to make me realize just how beautiful it is. The director (and writer) who loves opera resoundingly is Christopher Menaul. I wish I could thank him for this little gift of Mozart.