La Bohème, Robert Dornhelm, (115 mins)
The Full Monteverdi, John La Bouchardière, (60 mins)

Another brave director takes a stab at transferring Puccini's tragic masterpiece to celluloid, with mixed results

Can grand opera ever work at the movies? As shorthand for passion, obsession or sophistication, it has played a useful supporting role in everything from art house to horror.

Sung by Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, lampooned by the Marx Brothers and Danny Kaye, it has proved a great subject for comedy. Yet with the exception of Ingmar Bergman's jewel-box film of The Magic Flute, and the offbeat extrapolations of Derek Jarman, Nicolas Roeg, Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Bruce Beresford and Jean-Luc Godard in Don Boyd's Aria, opera has almost always looked false on film.

It's curious that two art forms so adept at enchantment have failed to form a stronger relationship. One hundred and 16 years ago, Thomas Edison predicted that synchronised sound and vision would bring opera to a man's parlour. And Edison was partly right. We now have some astonishing records of staged productions on DVD. But imagine an Almodovar L'Heure espagnole, a Brothers Quay Fairy Queen, a Terence Davies Eugene Onegin, a Scorsese Fanciulla del West. Though Woody Allen, Abbas Kiarostami and Sofia Coppola are directing operas, they're not directing them for the cinema. Whether flirting with real time and real locations (Giuseppe Patroni Griffi's 1992 Tosca), juxtaposing footage of the recording sessions with live action (Benoît Jacquot's 2001 Tosca) or sprinkling Mozart with CGI (Kenneth Branagh's 2006 The Magic Flute), opera on film has progressed remarkably little since Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni (1979).

Robert Dornhelm, director of the latest version of La Bohème, would have been wise to study a little cinema history before filming Puccini's opera. Back in 1932, Max Ophüls insisted that the sound for his film of The Bartered Bride was recorded outdoors to match the on-screen ambience. Here, alas, we have a lip-synched Bohème, filmed in Vienna and performed by a cast of which six members were not even involved in the original studio recording. With minimal technical flourishes from director of photography Walter Kindler – the film slides between colour and black and white – Dornhelm has produced what is in effect a lavishly dressed pop video for Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon's Deutsche Grammophon recording with Bertrand de Billy and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The sound is lush, with just a touch too much gloss, and inappropriate to either the palatial garret in which Rodolfo (Villazon) and Mimi (Netrebko) meet or the snowy exterior where they vow to part. Despite the lithe tempi and persuasive voices, this is a cautious and fatally touristic Bohème in which Paris looks like the set for a lager advertisement, and the counterpoint between the central romance and that between Marcello (George von Bergen, with the voice of Boaz Daniel) and Musetta (Nicole Cabell) acquires an unusually cynical tone. Falling out of her dress and into bed with Rodolfo in the final bar of their first duet, Netrebko's glamorous Mimi seems disconnected until Act III and inattentive to Villazon, whose ardent performance has not been toned down for the camera. For those who have yet to see them live, the DVD of Willy Decker's Salzburg production of La traviata is a far more revealing document of both.

No CGI snowflakes, no big names, no period costumes. It's reasonable to assume that the budget for The Full Monteverdi was considerably smaller than that for La Bohème. But John La Bouchardière's adaptation of his own present-day staging of Monteverdi's Fourth Book of Madrigals with I Fagiolini had a poignancy that only those who have married their childhood sweetheart and lived happily ever after would fail to recognise. It's an odd, intrusive and troubling thing to watch 19 songs of acute despair tumble from the mouths of six seemingly ordinary, 21st-century people as their back stories silently unfold, and odder still to watch those who are listening to them react to what they hear: the bullied wife, the fiancée who has found out about the affair, the lover who has promised to leave his family but doesn't, the husband who cheats on a pregnant wife, the boyfriend who doesn't want children ....

Shot in a series of unremarkable flats and streets, at restaurant tables and in toilet cubicles, with mascara, snot, baby bellies, wrinkles, receding hairlines and all the accoutrements of experience exposed, this was an exceptionally well-crafted, thoughtful film, beautifully sung and very bravely acted. Verismo, indeed.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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