‘Quartet’ opens at the TIFF

‘Quartet’ opens at the TIFF

Best things first.

The small roles and extras in the film are actual retired musicians, whose names and accomplishments we get to see during the closing credits. All the singing and playing in the film is done by them. The recorded music, when it’s being played in scenes, is borrowed from some of the classical editions. @GingerHat recognized Ileana Cotrubaş in ‘Caro nome’, which Maggie Smith’s Jean listens to in a scene as her own youthful rendition.

The Gwyneth Jones plays a small but characterful role of Ann Langley, a retired soprano who, by tacit agreement of all residents, was and still is the greatest talent of them all. She remains on the sidelines of the story, and only gets a few catty exchanges with Maggie Smith and the odd opportunity for silent comedic acting, which Dame Gwyneth uses really well. She gets to sing a bit of ‘Vissi d’arte’ near the end.

The best developed characters of the five or six main ones are Cecily of the fast-losing marbles (played by Pauline Collins) and the brooding tenor Reggie (Tom Courtenay) who gets a scene in which he explains the similarities between hip-hop and opera.

There was also the stardust factor. The four principals were there the entire evening, Hoffman and La Smith caused greatest decibels in this pagan love fest. Mags looked amazeballs.

The all-too-brief Q&A was the best bit. “What got you interested in this script,” somebody from the audience asked Hoffman, and he explained  that he had hung around opera singers when he was roommate with Robert Duvall, “back in the days when we were all still waiting tables”. They are amazing people, he went on, and “are they ever horny! They put actors to shame! They have sex between arias, I tell ya”. In another answer, he shared his displeasure by how their ‘industry’ and the society in general discard the singers after they reach a certain age.

As for the film itself… It really isn’t a very good film at all. Fakery abounds. The musicians’ retirement residence is a seventeenth-century manor with spectacular gardens and sports fields, surrounded by the walkable and very romantic forests and hills. (The manor-residence possibly comes from the desire to hitch on to some of the Downton Abbey success.) Its future funding (from the phantom donors) seems to depend on whether or not Jean the Star joins the other three retired singing stars in the annual gala. The drama therefore hinges on this absurd premise. All the characters but the two I mentioned are somewhere on the spectrum from slight to a crude stereotype, so we have a horny baritone with no inhibitions, a slutty French food server, a self-centred, flamboyantly dressed director, a compassionate Black nurse, a former conductor so poorly drawn it’s a waste of Andrew Sachs. Maggie Smith plays a version of the Dowager Countess, a diva character with many acid lines and absolutely no emotional plausibility. Why can’t she sing with the rest of them at the gala? Because she can’t. Why did her marriage with Reggie end in acrimony which he still can’t overcome? She had a fling with a tenor at La Scala after one drink too many, so the man immediately divorced her. (You wonder if Ronald Harwood — or is it the producers and editors of the film to blame? — ever met anybody who’s been married.) Sissy’s condition worsens (more sources of fake drama!) after Jean angrily throws a bouquet of flowers at her (I kid you not). The film can’t really tell anything truthful about the lives of aging and old artists, or about marriage, or about singing. Which is too bad. This is probably one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, and based on the names involved, it should have been one of the best.

Here’s the Rigoletto quartet that they rehearse for the gala. I should say, seemingly rehearse: all the singing and coaching scenes are covered by other audio, and we don’t even get to see one second of the lip-synced final performance of the quartet.

Pictures from our mid-orchestra row, courtesy of Ginger Hat:

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In this world you must make your own bed

In this world you must make your own bed

À propos the coming mayoral election here in the twin city of Torontella & Torontone, one must watch Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s operatic masterpiece, The Rise and the Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny).

What happens there? A city gets founded as a business enterprise. At first, it’s promoted as touristic resort with great outdoors, abundance of consumer goods (booze, good hookers, poker tables, horse-meat) and without all the other stuff that makes big cities so awful (arts, diversity). Then after almost getting hit by a hurricane, the city turns from a medium-size enterprise to a sort of a money-worshipping orgiastic collective run like a Lehman Brothers derivatives department circa 2007-8. The new motto of the city is Just do it! (I am not making this up. Check the libretto. Yes, Brecht knew about Nike and branding before these were even flicker in an executive’s eyes.)

After one of the characters finds himself unable to pay his tab, we find out that not having money is the only crime punishable by death in the perfect City of Mahagonny. He goes through the trial where the bar owner is also the judge, incidentally. His pleas for a loan remain politely refused by his best friends — Billy: Jimmy, you know how much I care, but with cash, it’s quite another matter. Jenny, in the most beautiful and momentous melodic line: In this world you must make your own bed /And no one will show you the trick / So go lie down and get kicked / For me, I’d rather stand and kick.  After the execution, a god comes in and says he’s had enough and time for everybody to go to Hell, to which the city of Mahagonny reply, No, we are already there, we prefer this hell to yours.

The opera is like a Who’s Who of the Canadian political world of the last thirty years. (Other countries will recognize their own cast.) It’s also fitting in this pre-election time in TO. There’s a penny-pincher in the opera, and a fatty, and a furious power-grabber, then a guy who lobbies for other groups to be banned from parades, the city reps who know that having an opinion is rather unprofitable so they stay away from such activities, a collection of grandstanders, countless profit whores of all descriptions, and an editor-in-chief of the largest political weekly magazine in the country who is firm in his belief that funding arts is not in public good (if something’s valuable for the society, people will pay for it, didntja know).

But where was I?

Right. So I saw two productions of Mahagonny on DVD yesterday. A great Salzburg production from 1998 with the peculiarly cast main female roles, Gwyneth Jones as Leocadia Begbick and Catherine Malfitano as Jenny. Jones was sporting her royal white mane and playing the Mahagonny founder/bar owner as a boardroom suit with pearls and all, which was all very good, but the Wagnerian booming voice singing Leocadja was fairly… alienating, ahem. Malfitano was scary as a Goth Gramma version of Jenny whose voice is rather cracked – but maybe that was intentional, it’s a Brecht/Weill thingy after all.

Here’s a clip with the ‘must make your own bed’ segment as they arrest Jimmy (the excellent Jerry Hadley):

The second was an LA Opera production of the Mahagonny sung in English with Patti LuPone as Leocadia (who those far from Broadway might have seen as Frank Rossitano’s mother in 30 Rock) and Audra McDonald as Jenny. Worth watching on DVD, even if it’s not among the best productions ever:

Then of course there’s YouTube, which will show you that Germans know how to do their Breill. (Compound Brecht-Weill – geddit, geddit?) Find any clip from any recent production in any provincial German theatre and it’ll be fantastic. So here’s an outstanding one: the perfect voice for Jenny with Heike Susanne Daum, the perfect set and costumes, the perfect chorus, the perfect mix of angry and resigned with a dash of chillingly sinister:

Brünnhilde the überfeminist

Brünnhilde the überfeminist

Just finished watching Patrice ChéreauPierre Boulez Der Ring DVD boxset (Toronto Public Library has it) and although there are plenty of interesting female characters, Brünnhilde stands out as arguably the most important agent in the entire Ring.

In a key scene mid-way through the Ring, she is about to be demoted from a divinity to a woman – to be punished by being clearly sexed and by moving from a state where she can do anything to a state where she will be enslaved by love for the first man who shows interest in her. Later this harsh punishment gets partly amended but she still has to go through a state of passivity and let herself be found and awaken by a hero, though it will be a hero of her choice.  In a significant way, everything that happens from the Walküre on is a process of gendering Brünnhilde, which takes place along with the other main unfolding, the decline of the gods and the god-sanctioned order of the universe. Like any other woman, Brünnhilde de Beauvoir wasn’t born a woman but needs to learn how to become one.  Hint: things don’t go that well.

After of bit of research, it turned out that there are a number of feminist and Brünnhilde-centred stagings of the Ring, and not a small amount was written along these lines. The Copenhagen Ring is among the best known womanist Rings. Earlier this year, Francesca Zambello did a decidedly feminist Die Walkure at the San Francisco Opera. One of the few other women who ever staged the Ring was the East- and West-German theatre director Ruth Berghaus, who worked with the Berliner Ensemble and Bertolt Brecht. (My search for any surviving recordings of her work didn’t bear any fruit, but I’m sure there must be something somewhere? There’s plenty of photography and studies, interviews and newspaper reviews, luckily.) The Chéreau ring was also very feminist: his decision to dress the gods in the late nineteenth-century haute bourgeoisie clothes and narrow their world down to that of a family unit had a lot to do with it.

Off to Mark Poster‘s article ‘What does Wotan want’, and a re-read of Žižek‘s musings on Wagner in Opera’s Second Death… Brünnhilde talk to be continued.