Three things I've seen recently - one at the movies and two on TV - are worth mentioning. Firstly a rather lovely French movie, Comme une image, whose title in English is the somewhat less subtle Look At Me. The plot in one sentence, from the NZ Film Festival website: "An insecure young Parisian opera singer struggles to escape the shadow of her superstar novelist father." So of course I went. As I say, an excellent movie. But more important, there's real singing in it. We see Lolita, the soprano, at her voice lessons, in rehearsal and in performance, and the music is gorgeous. What's better, it's authentic - the soprano who provides her voice is at the same level as the character, so she makes mistakes, she falters, and then she triumphs. The final concert, in a tiny French country church, is just beautiful. Highly recommended, see it if you can. And I think the actress playing Lolita bears a slight resemblance to Cecilia every now and then, but nobody agrees with me.
The Arts Channel hasn't had a great deal operatic to offer of late, but this week we have had two rather special shows. One, surprisingly enough, was Chamber Music: Puccini. I say surprising, because Chamber Music is, as much as anything else, a dance series - life and works of a composer interpreted by Les Boréades, a French-Canadian dance troupe. In between the dancing there are pieces of straigh documentary-style biography, but there's a lot of dance, really not my cup of tea. But since this one was Puccini, I figured we were almost guaranteed some sopranos, and I could just ignore the dancing. Which more or less is what I did. In earlier Chamber Music shows I could sort of see a point to all the choreography, even if it didn't appeal to me. But here it was just strange - unlike, say, a string quartet, a Puccini aria has a definite plot to it, because it has a text. So it was offputting, for instance, to see the whole of Mimi's and Rodolfo's first encounter taking place as a representation of just 'Mi chiamano Mimi' - doesn't make a great deal of sense. It seemed that if you were going to go to all this trouble, you might as well just act the scene, lip-synch it even - and in fact that's more or less what happened for the Tosca excerpt.
However, if the dance aspect didn't exactly win me over, the music absolutely did. I love Puccini anyway, but one can get a little jaded about his Greatest Soprano Hits. But this was different. It was those hits, but sung with piano accompaniment only. The effect was amazing, intensely personal, and revelatory. And the soprano, a Monique Pagé, was equally enchanting. Throughout the film I kept thinking, who is that? Having learnt her name, I'm still not a great deal the wiser, but I'd certainly like to hear more of her.
The other Arts Channel treat - another screening of the fabulous documentary Beyond Music: Montserrat Caballé. I've seen this three times now and each time, I'm spellbound. Great film-making and an even greater subject. I wrote about this documentary back in January, the first time I saw it, and you know, I think I'll just copy and paste.
The Arts Channel just screened the most wonderful documentary, Caballé: Beyond Music. Somehow until tonight I was unaware how amazing this woman was and is: Norma, Fiordiligi, Sieglinde, Elisabeth in Don Carlo, the Verdi Requiem, duets with Freddie Mercury, Strauss lieder and apparently everything else as well. Much is made of Maria Callas' back-to-back Norma/Isolde performances but I'd no idea that Montserrat Caballé sang an even huger and more varied repertoire, with the added bonus of (don't kill me) sounding a darn sight better. She's also gorgeous, gracious, sweet and very funny. All I was expecting was tonight was one of those early-90s, English voice-over quick biography kinds of documentaries, which are fine. But this is a film from 2003, directed by her fabulous brother Carlos, who was largely responsible for his sister's success and seems to have just happened to discover José Carreras along the way. So the only narration is from Montserrat herself, in interviews and in conversation with Carlos. And everybody who's anybody shows up to add their two cents: Renée Fleming, Marilyn Horne, Cheryl Studer, Sam Ramey, Dame Joan Sutherland, her daughter (Monserrat Jr, who also sings), her adorable husband (she sang Butterfly and married her Pinkerton) and many many others. It's a wonderful film: there's no voiceover spelling out to us how successful and talented she is: it's just patently obvious. There's are excerpts from an amazing Norma, the adorable Barcelona concert with Freddie Mercury, Tosca, Roberto Devereux, masterclasses, everything. We see her visit her music school and pay tribute to her first teacher. She tells wonderful stories, as does her brother. And she sings. The world doesn't rave about those piannissimi for nothing. She's a gorgeous actress too. There's just nothing lacking- whether she's one of your personal favourites or not, there's no denying she's magnificent and destined forever to be unmatched.
I don't think there's anything much I can add to that. This is unquestionably one of the best singer documentaries I've seen. And worth watching for the Norma clip alone - an outdoors performance, sung in strong winds which, rather than being a problem, only add to the magic of it all - her robes and her hair trail out behind her, and you'd swear it was she who brought the wind with her. Quite incredible.