Filmmakers have long tried to bring the world’s best-loved operas to the screen—very occasionally, with success (cross-reference below).
The difficulty/opportunity, of course, is transferring the performing arts’ most complex form to a preponderantly visual medium.
Every live opera performance is, necessarily and happily, unique: cast members change, tempi vary, a light bursts, a prop fails to appear … that’s all part of the fun.
In the cinema, the only real variable is the actual venue: what is seen and heard is, otherwise, a continuous loop of the same final “takes.”
In an opera house, every audience member is their own cinematographer; at the movies those choices have already been made.
Speaking to the early-morning assemblage before the North American première of Juan, director/co-screenplay writer (along with Mogens Rukov, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto was decidedly refashioned in English; present-day sets and scenarios were also worked into the “contemporary” mix) went to some length to explain what was about to come.
Quite rightly, the experienced stage director (this being his film début) said that songs express far more than just words and that he did not want to create a museum piece. A good deal of the music had to be cut to fit the runtime; the cast members were chosen for both their musical and acting abilities. It’s a much different world playing to cavernous halls compared to the ever-present, far smaller camera lens.
The biggest achievement, he hoped, was the lack of playback (pre-recorded voices dubbed into the film) for most of the singing. The more common lip-synching method frequently sounds better than it looks (as witness Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata and Otello—cross-reference below; both featuring the much younger Placido Domingo—playing Alfredo Germont and Otello in the ‘80s—who makes a hilarious one-line cameo appearance at Juan’s party (shot in a studio that could readily bring Andy Warhol’s Factory to mind).
Providing the music are conductor/harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concerto Copenhagen. Alas, this choice is the production’s most serious, near-fatal flaw. The anaemic period strings and the raucous brass are no friends of Mozart’s beautifully coloured score. The critical syncopated lines (in the overture and later descent to Hades) lack the rhythmic bite and intensity that is essential to the staggering drama. The “pit”-to-stage synchronization—necessarily, given the use of ear pieces and click track “accompaniments”—provides only good enough, never razor-sharp ensemble.
Using “modern-day language” (replete with all manner of shit, fucks and even a blow job) not only sounds cheap, the actual words (translated and “updated” from the original Italian) are frequently at odds with the music’s natural rhythm (Zerlina’s “Hit me, hit me, be my master” grates on the ear in more ways than one). The few bits of unsung comments surrounding the sublime musical art (“I won’t hit you” “Sure”) are as offensive as French horn misfires.
Vocally, Mikhail Petrenko as the ever-faithful servant, Leporello, is the most consistent (saddled with much of the crudities and a wee bit of queer-card characterization); in the title role, Christopher Maltman is more than, er, up to the “romantic” challenges but his aria in the shower just doesn’t wash with the art.
In her late-inning tour de force, Maria Bengtsson proves a most capable Anna, offering the production’s finest change of register even as her extended melissmatic lines betray the trials and tribulations of multi-takes. The only other standout is Eric Halvarson’s full-blooded bass as The Commander. The remainder do their best but can’t find the magic individually or collectively. None of the ensembles has have any “wow” factor.
An interesting experiment, despite a valid attempt by those on both sides of the lens, Mozart’s finest opera still needs to be seen as originally intended not projected into consciousness. JWR