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For Your Consideration: 'Quartet'

Some of you may remember Daniel Schmid's delightful documentary Il Bacio di Tosca from the 1980s. It examined the lives of the residents of the Casa Verdi in Milan, the retirement home for poor opera singers that Verdi established with some of his fortune. He and his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, even decided to be buried there, instead of at their home at Sant'Agata, and thus the wily old composer keeps watch over the devoted nuts who sang and adored his music. This may have been the inspiration for Ronald Harwood's play Quartet, which takes place at just such a retirement home for aging opera singers (and musicians), but a fictitious one called Beecham House, supposedly established by the British conductor Thomas Beecham. The establishment is struggling to balance its budget, which makes the upcoming fundraising gala, held on Giuseppe Verdi's birthday and featuring the residents themselves, such an important event. The eponymous group of four singers -- who once recorded the famous quartet from Rigoletto to great acclaim -- find themselves reunited at Beecham House, and the possibility of performing the Rigoletto ensemble again for the gala, and the money it could raise, are too much to resist.

What made Schmid's documentary so memorable was that it included conversations with and performances by the singers themselves, a zany bunch who had lost none of their wit, competitiveness, or hunger for ovation. Having the eponymous group of four singers here played by actors seemed unlikely to have the same charm. Happily (and quite intentionally) Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut, pads the film with actual retired musicians: singers Patricia Varley, John Rawnsley, Cynthia Mosey, Nuala Willis, David Ryall, Melodie Waddingham; clarinetist Colin Bradbury (BBC Symphony Orchestra), jazz trumpeter Ronnie Hughes, violinists John Georgiadis (London Symphony Orchestra) and Ita Herbert (English Chamber Orchestra), cellist John Heley (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), and violist Graeme Scott (BBC Symphony Orchestra), conductor Jack Honeyborne, and pianist Patricia Loveland. These are only the names of those specially listed in the credits, accompanied by black-and-white head shots from the height of their careers.

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Best of all, soprano Gwyneth Jones has a guest appearance as a rival soprano, and a performance of Tosca's aria Vissi d'arte at the gala -- with Maggie Smith's Jean Horton sneaking up back stage to listen with admiration. Smith, of course, fits into the role of a temperamental, often nasty diva only too well, matched in theatrics by the baritone, Billy Connolly's Wilf (the role was reportedly conceived for Albert Finney), who continues to throw himself at everything female near at hand, but with some of his inhibitions removed by a recent stroke. Their Maddalena, Pauline Collins (Albert Nobbs), is deep in the ravages of dementia but very sunny, while the touchy tenor, Tom Courtenay (Little Dorrit, The Dresser), has to get over the bitterness caused by his divorce from Smith's character. They are a virtuoso bunch of actors, and their interactions are all delightful to watch, with a campy Michael Gambon as their willful and colorful director. For anyone who loves opera, the soundtrack will be a highlight, too, featuring parts of several performances of the Rigoletto quartet, as well as lots of other opera, and original music by Dario Marianelli which incorporates many motifs from Rigoletto (especially the tenor's smarmy line "Bella figlia dell'amore"). Hoffman's debut behind the camera is warm, snappy, and fun -- if not exactly a triumph -- mostly because he stays out of his actors' way. His love of opera -- as a young man he and Robert Duvall lived with opera singers as roommates -- comes through loud and clear.

This film opens in Washington-area theaters today, including Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas.

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