Most operas are more notable for the singing than the storyline and acting. Audiences will happily pay a small fortune and sit for up to five hours to savour the unforgettable moments of high Cs and orchestral orgasms that frequently require more foreplay to reach than some relationships last.
With Maria Maggenti’s Puccini for Beginners, the notion of bedroom farce takes on Wagnerian proportions (but, no worries, the actual operatic clips are limited to a few bars from Puccini’s Turnadot and Mozart’s Don Giovanni—heard but not seen) as the musically named Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser)—a lesbian on the rebound—simultaneously dates a pair of exes, Philip (Justin Kirk, who bares more than the women) and Grace (Gretchen Mol, delightfully full of vim, vigour and a vibrator as she takes her walk on the wild side unaware that her new-found love is sleeping with her former “enemy”).
To fulfill the “Jack” role from the long-admired TV sitcom, Maggenti uses a pair of Sushi chefs (perpetually on the lookout for “tuna girl”), all manner of passersby and even a subway station announcer’s voices to deliver chastisements for two-timing (not to mention playing for both teams), or zippy one-liners as befits the scene. The fast-paced script also abounds with delicious puns (Kant and cunt, spewed forth by Allegra’s own ex, Nell—played with feminist ferocity by Tina Benko), groaners (oh yes, Virginia, “amazing” is gracefully coupled) and marvellous double entendres: “I’m in charge of refills,” offers Allegra (decked out in unisex servant’s livery and a severe bun that could be credited to any production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro) to wavering glamour-dyke, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson). Of course, this third-act exchange comes at the, er, climax of a party where all is revealed, planned weddings are scrapped and the faint hope of fidelity starts to heal the broken hearts of the principals.
Aurally (note to editor: careful of the spelling!), composer Terry Dame has done a fine job of underscoring the fun, employing perky orchestration at Allegra’s binge party (anyone who’s ever been dumped will cheer as her plate is filled to well-beyond capacity) to a charming piano and cello background as Grace scales Allegra’s charms, to a poignant English horn (attempting to mollify the hilarious quintet: argument on the restaurant’s sidewalk). He’s also skillfully interwoven some “Putting on the Ritz” and Grieg’s “Morning” into the coda. Over-the-top is Mozart’s “Turkish March” ringtone—enough already: we get it!
But when all is said and done, Maggenti’s film transcends mere lesbian angst and offers some food for thought to lovers everywhere as they dance, sing or fornicate around the scary subject of commitment. JWR