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9.1.05

Aria on DVD

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Aria (1987, remastered on DVD in 2002)
Some more yummies on DVD have come my way thanks to Netflix. You may remember seeing the team-directed movie Aria when it was originally released in 1987, which was remastered for a DVD release in 2002. I had not seen it since the original release and was glad to become reacquainted with it. The concept is simple: you take ten directors, each of whom shoots a short film using a recorded opera excerpt as the soundtrack and basis of inspiration, and you weave the whole thing together in a frame with John Hurt (The Actor), apparently remembering all of the episodes as he wanders through an opera theater (the Teatro Amilcare Ponchielli in Cremona, Italy), preparing for his role as Pagliacci. (The ten excerpts are themselves framed with music, uncredited, from Verdi's La Traviata.)

What is unusual, perhaps by design, is the emphasis on the singing of Leontyne Price, which gives some stability, at least to my ears, to a bewildering range of cinematic styles in this anthology. First, Nicolas Roeg's segment (Verdi, Un ballo in maschera, with Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett) deals with a cooky assassination story, in which comical bad guys threaten the life of King Zog of Albania (a trouser role played by Theresa Russell, the director's wife). The historical tone is immediately contradicted by Charles Sturridge's otherworldly black-and-white segment (Verdi, "La virgine degli angeli" from La Forza del Destino, sung by Leontyne Price), in which three otherwise angelic children take a joyride in a Mercedes.

Available from Amazon:
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Jean-Baptiste Lully, Armide, directed by Philippe Herreweghe (1993)
I think my favorite is Jean-Luc Godard's segment (Lully, Armide, in Philippe Herreweghe's older recording of this opera, with Rachel Yakar and Zeger Vandersteene, now replaced by a much better 1993 recording), which incarnates female desire and reinforces the basic truth that opera is all about sex. The twin Armides (the ravishing Marion Peterson and Valérie Allain as Les Jeunes Filles) are presented as two sides of the female personality: at one point their faces are shot side by side in closeup as one shouts "Non!" and the other "Oui!" The segment was shot on location in the Weyder Gym in Paris, with a handful of male bodybuilders, who seem to ignore the women even when they are dancing around naked. The women sometimes mouth the words of the opera, and they speak the lines in conjunction with the words sung (Godard manipulates the recorded sound with the heaviest hand). In the opera, Armide, at the moment she is about to kill her enemy, Renaud, falls in love with him (the line Il semble être fait pour l'amour, or "He seems to have been made for love," is singled out by Godard).

The funniest segment is by Julien Temple (Verdi, Rigoletto, with Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, and Alfredo Kraus), in which an older producer and his young wife both have bizarre trysts at the same cheesy hotel (shot on location in the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California). This is worth watching for Buck Henry's hilarious act as Preston, super high on ecstasy, and because "La donna è mobile" is sung by an Elvis impersonator (John Hostetter). Bruce Beresford's segment (Erich Korngold, Die tote Stadt, with Carol Neblett and René Kollo) features Elizabeth Hurley and Peter Birch, both often naked, lipsyncing the German words of the opera's final scene. Robert Altman's segment (Rameau, Les Boréades, the Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner) spoofs the craziness of opera audiences. It opens on a room of costumed guests watching a performance of the opera (they wear wigs, makeup, and are quite unruly, one even singing out with a performer). It was shot on location in the Théâtre Le Ranelagh in Paris (where, last year, Yoko Ono performed her one-woman Cut Show).

Franc Roddam's segment (Wagner, the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, sung by Leontyne Price) features two lovers (Bridget Fonda and James Mathers) driving through the desert. As they arrive in Las Vegas, Isolde's singing accompanies the glowing lights of the strip. They make love in a hotel room lit up by flashing neon signs and then, having gotten drunk, slit their wrists together in the bathtub. The theme of opera and death is continued in Ken Russell's segment (Puccini, "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, sung by Jussi Björling), with its quasi-Egyptian costumes and sets (as if for Magic Flute). A girl is branded on the face with a jewel brand by a man's kiss and then given an IV. As the Egyptian dream world fades away, we see that she has been in an accident (we see her clothing cut away by nurses, and the lover becomes a doctor). Given the disturbing nature of this opera's "love story," it makes sense that when the woman is on the operating table, anesthetized, she becomes the segmented body parts of a mannequin.

In the first part of Derek Jarman's segment (Gustave Charpentier, "Depuis le jour" from Louise, sung by Leontyne Price), John Hurt walks onto the stage of the empty house and looks up to see a woman seated in the center box. An old woman remembers herself as a young woman (the magnificent Tilda Swinton, who I am sure will be a perfect White Witch in Andrew Adamson's new movie The Chronicles of Narnia, planned for next December), with her lover. That memory leads into Bill Bryden's segment (Ruggiero Leoncavallo, I pagliacci, in the crackly LP version of Enrico Caruso with a terrible orchestral sound). The Actor lipsyncs the dramatic final aria ("Vesti la giubba") on the stage and falls dead.

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