August 30, 2015

"Mission Impossible" and Turandot

Have you seen Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation yet? My wife and I went last night. How was it? Not boring, that's for sure! I was already aware that it features a lengthy sequence taking place during a performance of Puccini's Turandot, but that wasn't the reason I wanted to see it. I wanted a slick action-filled roller coaster of suspense; you know - a Hollywood blockbuster with all the trimmings. But it does provide me with the opportunity to consider what can happen to operas when movie writers elect to incorporate the art form into a commercial movie.

In previous commercial films electing to have characters attend a live performance of an opera in an opera house (thinking now of Pretty Woman and Godfather III), there was an effort to treat the operas in question (La Traviata and Cavalleria Rusticana, respectively), with reasonable faithfulness to the original, even if the level of singing by some of the principals was not always big-league. (Michael Corleone's son resembled those tenors on the Lawrence Welk show more than the Turridu of one's dreams, let's just leave it at that.)

That's in contrast to the Turandot shenanigins taking place in Rogue Nation. I'm kind of glad they didn't choose an opera by a living composer; the dead know not what vivisection is performed on their creations after they leave this earth.

On the plus side, the singing was pretty good. I searched the International Movie Data Base to see if the singers were credited, but no soap. Actors were employed to play the roles of the various performers - even the conductor! Did actual orchestral conductors feel this job would be "beneath" them, or did the producers think an actor would manage to look more maestro-ish? Whatever. In a New York Times interview, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie asserts that all the actors used in the Turandot sequences were "aspiring opera singers" who "had experience singing opera", whatever that means. He also revealed that, as part of a contractual agreement reached with the Vienna State Opera for the use of their name, the singing artists heard are "the cast of their upcoming version of Turandot and their orchestra". So one has to search through the Vienna State Opera website to unearth the artists' names. Because why should THEY be credited publicly? Who cares about THEM? (Heavy sarcasm.) Anyway, if you've seen the movie and you're curious, Turandot was sung by Lise Lindstrom, with Johann Botha as Calaf. Well, they both have pretty good careers going; I guess they can live without the extra PR.

Oh, and if you're wondering if the opera sequence was filmed on the actual stage of the Vienna State Opera, wasn't. There was a massive set built on a London sound stage, according to McQuarrie. Access to the real opera house was extremely limited.

Now, never mind the extremely unlikely backstage acrobatics taking place as Cruise's Ethan Hunt cavorted nimbly on theatrical equipment fighting a bad guy in a manner that made "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" look like a documentary. So it's unrealistic and over-the-top; we LIKE that, some of us! I wanted to know if the operatic staging would be as authentic as in the other two movies I mentioned.

Oh, dear.

I knew Puccini was in trouble when the curtain rose on Act 1 and the music began. For one thing, the Mandarin was alone on an empty stage to deliver his "Popolo di Pekino" line. Um, it's a crowd scene. The entire city is supposed to be gathered there. They all sing within seconds. How much would it have added to the movie's budget to have stuck a few extras on stage? THAT'S where you economize? Really? Isn't the spectacle of a crowd scene a GOOD thing?

Also: it's a little thing, but noticeable: the Mandarin started singing too early. They lopped off some of the orchestral introduction with those brutal chords that sound like chops of an ax. I'm not saying the singer goofed and entered early; I'm saying they cut like three seconds of music. Well, timing is everything, and Ethan Hunt has villains to kill - let's not dilly-dally!

From then on, it became apparent that our fictitious cast, orchestra and chorus had all dropped the pages of their music on the floor, with the result that they were hastily re-assembled in the wrong order. And, remarkably, all in the same order! While Ethan delivered karate chops, the music hopped around in some crazy-quilt order unfamiliar to opera-lovers. I can't EVEN re-construct how this worked, but we leaped from late scenes to early scenes and back again while, in contrast, the action unfolded in "real time", continuously. I would have loved for Mr. McQuarrie to explain the necessity of taking a hatchet to the opera, but the Times reporter didn't go there.

I once attended a recital by a pianist who specialized in contemporary music. The program closed with a piece whimsically entitled "Haydn in the Forest". (I don't recall the composer, this was some 30 years ago.) The joke was that pages of a Haydn piano sonata were cut into strips, upon which the strips were glued onto a large poster board in the shape of a tree. The strips were the "branches", sticking out at random angles. The pianist then played the notes visible on the strips, in any order he chose. This produced an extremely random-sounding mosaic of Haydnesque piano bits.

That's what Rogue Nation did to Turandot.

Also, the device of "hiding" the sound of a rifle shot (or a woodwind shot... don't ask...) under the blare of the high note in the tenor aria "Nessun dorma" is an homage. The same idea first occurred in Hitchcock's thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Nice subtle touch, but in reality, wouldn't the three cymbal crashes at the end of "Non piangere, Liu" have been a more logical moment to cover a gunshot? Ah, but then the audience wouldn't get to wallow in their "favorite aria", assuming they paid attention to The Three Tenors back in the day.

Finally, those with ears to hear became aware that film composer Joe Kraemer used "Nessun dorma" in his underscoring, allowing the big tune to appear as some kind of - what? Leitmotif? - whenever Ethan and Ilsa, the female lead, made goo-goo eyes at one another. For a blockbuster, Rogue Nation is positively prim and prudish in matters of sex; there's not so much as a smooch on the cheek, and everybody keeps their clothes on. But we're led to believe that the un-coupled couple will hook up some day (...un bel di...) and Puccini's aria is the symbol of that potential.

It's not completely inappropriate in that context, actually. In the aria, Calaf is singing about a woman who is not yet his, vowing that he will kiss her at some point in the future, "when the light shines". That's clearly Ethan's general train of thought as well, right? Although he really seems, you know, married to his career.

So, my verdict: thumbs-up for choosing an opera as the context for an action sequence. Not original, but the more people see opera, the more it registers on their personal cultural radar. Thumbs also up for singing at a high level. But thumbs close into a fist when it comes to assuming that "us dummies" in the audience won't know or care if the opera thus employed is turned into a mish-mash of random musical passages, like a cinematic iPod scrambling a list of excerpts at random.


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