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.
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: