Thursday, 8 December 2011

Berlioz's Cinematic L'Enfance du Christ

Hector Berlioz
This evening I attended a performance of L'Enfance du Christ, Berlioz's approachable oratorio concerning the flight of the holy family from Herod's bloodlust and their resettlement in Sais, in Egypt. Berlioz's music has a cinematic panache all of its own, the scores bursting with melodrama, mental pictures and many of the dramatic effects that one associates with modern cinema.

For example, this piece begins with a once-upon-a-time style recitative before dissolving into a prologue. At the end the narrator returns as the music reconstitutes the here and now with a sequence of simple notes. One can actually hear the cross-fading of images, suggesting the passing of time (rather like the end of The Shining, for example). This very same musical-cinemtaic idea of Berlioz's is used by Terence Malick to move into the final sequence of his recent film The Tree Of Life - a movement that suggests stepping from either the present or the period of the film into some alternative state.

Elsewhere there is a real mix of music that follows the drama closely, just as in an opera. The piece would be more operatic but for the sung portions being separated by lengthy stretches of orchestral music which have clear visual connotations: the prologue is a marching bass line, earmarking the core of the work as concerning the family's flight (complete with braying donkey, borrowed from that prior theatrical work of note Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream); choruses dissolve into orchestral stretches that suggest everything from infanticide to domestic bustle; angelic offstage choruses provide not only acoustic effects but also dramatic coups in the performance. This is typical of Berlioz's output at large, which is both operatic and in large orchestral realisations of familiar literature (by both Shakespeare and Geothe).

Berlioz's musical language also has a long resonance. Familiar traces of Puccini and Wagner can be heard at given moments (more than just coincidental fragments of melody, the melodic outline of O mio babbino caro (translated as 'o my beloved child', from Gianni Schicci) comes as Mary talks of her child and a motif from Wagner's Parsifal (an Arthurian legend of a naive hero) pops up as the child-saviour's birth is discussed. Berlioz is not at all shy of using what we might now think of as crude musical devices, such as diminished chords, to generate the melodrama just when he wants it, a technique familiar to a certain school of silent film piano accompaniment.

I was watching the Britten Sinfonia and Voices at the Queen Elizabeth Hall under the magnetic Mark Elder.  The orchestra had some stand-out wind playing, particularly in the often tiresome, interpolated flute duet with harp, which was here a real highlight. The principal horn and bassoon also deserve mention, characterful and alive but never over-pungent. The soloists, Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Roderick Williams and Neal Davies were uniformly superb, fully engaged with all this real and imaginary drama through exemplary singing.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Opera in Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)

My life isn't an opera!
That's a moot point heavily chewed over in Kenneth Lonergan's new film Margaret, a drama that investigates the relationships and moral equivalence of a disparate ensemble of New Yorkers. At their centre is a precocious but emotionally flammable high-school girl, Lisa (played by Anna Paquin). Lisa is prone to escalating the heat of exchanges. In her words, she can become hyperbolic, just like the heightened expression associated with the storylines and vernacular of opera. Lonergan uses this mode of expression both symbolically and formally, not least in contradistinction to the basic ennui of everyday New Yorkers. Their life may have its dramas but it isn't an opera.

What is opera? Not even Lisa's mother, an actor, seems familiar with the form. Lisa offers a thumbnail idea at the height of an early discussion - not to do with music, drama or emotion but in dismissing it as performers trying to prove how loud they can sing.

As if to prove the point, Lisa's own operatic sensibility leads her into situations either involving shouting or competition to be heard. This is most notable in the two set piece debate classes at her school where she gets involved in loud, heated exchanges with a peer. Abandoning the conventions of the discussion (for her own heightened expression), she begins to look like someone trying to prove how loud they can shout.

Lonergan's manipulation of a popular perception of opera in this way has a surprising pay off when we actually get inside the Metropolitan Opera House. There are two visits, the first as a preparatory episode for the second. Neither the aria from Bellini's Norma (that Lisa's mother attends) nor the duet from Offenbach's The Tales Of Hoffmann (which Lisa and her mother see together)* have any thematic resonance with the film. Rather, the two extracts are chosen for their simple melodic beauty to contrast with the raucousness of the dialogue elsewhere, as well as debunking that peremptory definition of opera confined to volume.

The second sequence proper begins by borrowing formally from Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute, in which a diverse audience are shown attending the lowered curtain as the introductory music starts.



As in Bergman it's a device for setting up parity between the audience and the stage, establishing equivalence between performance and reality. Moreover, as Offenbach's music is heard against the pointedly framed images of the audience one asks if it has become dislocated from the opera being watched to become the underscoring of the film. The diegesis becomes muddled. Indeed, when the camera turns back on the action of the performance, it's in medium close-up on the singers, i.e. with not only the audience but also the proscenium arch (the fourth wall) behind it. The singers occupy the same existential space, according to Lonergan's camera, as the audience, even to extent that their duet is filmed according to the 180° rule, as if they were characters in the preceding - real - drama.

Perhaps the film is an opera then. Could the individual and cumulative lives of the New Yorkers that the camera seeks out in this final scene constitute an opera? Lonergan's opening shot would suggest so, showing the movement of commuters on the street in slow-motion against the music of the opening titles. Slow motion is the natural state of opera, its drama being slowed or suspended for its most celebrated moments (arias and duets, such as those featured in the film). It is also a familiar device in the romantic apexes of films.

More than this, the film also has its own Interlude, or Intermezzo. Raging Bull and the third Godfather film have made us familiar with the short, stand-alone Intermezzo that comes at about the two-thirds mark of Mascagni's opera Cavelleria Rusticana. Structurally transcribed at the two-thirds mark of Margaret, Lonergan introduces his own interlude, a poetic visual solipsism, a slow-motion track following the back of Lisa's head down the street, followed by a vertical pan up between the buildings. It's a soul-in-flight moment of visual-operatic bravura (of which the Antonioni of The Passenger would have approved). It also serves as a riposte to the 'My life is not an opera!' rebuke, made after Lisa has unwittingly described a soul-possession experience.

With extracts from two highly familiar operas and Lonergan's own operatic approach to the structure and style of the film, it is interesting to see how Nico Muhly's original score finds its place. I found the musical cues invariably conventional, working with the action. However, there are one or two interesting moments where the music itself seems - consciously - at odds to the drama, casting confrontations in an absurd or playful light. Certainly, I felt that Muhly's music doesn't stake any claim for itself, a sense I also had on seeing his own dedicated opera Two Boys in London in the summer (it would be of interest to find out whether the opera was written before or after the film score, given the protracted release of the film).

Margaret is a complicated film. Characters contradict themselves as much as one another. Lonergan's incorporation of opera is equally contradictory. However it also effectively makes the case for the catharsis of art, particularly in the overt closing sequence. Opera is in many ways an absurd art form, demanding a considerable suspension of disbelief. The unifying theme of much of the film's welter of episodes is to do with adopting a high tolerance in order to try and achieve some sort of harmony despite these contradictions. The final scene suggests that once experienced, this harmoniousness attains a truth that renders the original contradiction the greatest absurdity of all.

*Please note that in the film the excerpts are performed by real opera singers: Christina Goerke sings Bellini's Casta Diva and Renée Fleming & Susan Graham sing Offenbach's O belle nuit. No easy link is available for any of these three artists performing these excerpts.