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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”─ Soprano Albina Shagimuratova subs as Lucia and is spectacular!

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Tuesday, October 28th like she was born to the role. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Wednesday, October 28th. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

The footnotes for Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova’s fall 2015 season at San Francisco Opera (SFO) might read “The Queen rises,” affirming that the last minute drama that occurs behind the scenes in opera can be as exhilarating as what we see on stage.  Before the curtain rose on Wednesday night’s final performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, SFO’s General Director, David Gockley, unexpectedly appeared on stage to deliver “goods news and bad news.”  Soprano Nadine Sierra , who had been getting rave reviews for her Lucia, was suddenly ill.  (Sierra herself was a late replacement for German soprano Diana Damrau who withdrew unexpectedly in September citing personal reasons.)  The good news was that Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, knew the role of Lucia by heart and had agreed to sub, just hours ago, for Sierra.

Shagimuratova had wowed audiences with her dynamic Queen of the Night in the 2012 world premiere of SFO’s The Magic Flute. She, however, had very recently been ill herself and had been too sick to sing Queen of the Night in last Sunday’s matinee performance of the company’s Magic Flute, which was just two and a half days earlier.  Many of us who are devoted Sierra fans were sad that we would miss her but elated that Shagimuratova, the beloved Queen, had risen from her bed to take on one of opera’s most demanding roles.

Shagimuratova, who most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, did more than seize the moment─she was on fire.  She took us all along with her on Lucia’s tumultuous descent from fragility into madness and executed the famous third act Mad Scene with mesmerizing finesse.  Her co-stars, too, delivered the goods, particularly the dazzling Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s secret lover and baritone Brian Mulligan as Lucia’s brother, Enrico.  And after Sunday’s performance, we’ll all be watching out for the gorgeous Latvian mezzo soprano Zanda Švēde, a second year Adler fellow, whose lovely voice and stunning red hair made the most of her small role as Alisa, Lucia’s handmaid.

Presiding at the podium, Nicola Luisotti brought a stirring and lush performance from the SFO orchestra and chorus that incisively captured Lucia’s emotional fragility and supported the characters’ most passionate moments.  Of the dozen or so Donizetti operas that are considered masterpieces, Lucia is the pinnacle─it contains opera’s most gorgeous and powerful music and abounds with opportunities for vocal embellishment, lush harmonizing and drama.  It’s no wonder that this bel-canto (literally “beautiful singing”) masterpiece has been performed in 23 seasons at SFO. This new SFO production, directed by Michael Cavanagh and designed by Erhard Rom, the team behind SFO’s wonderful Susannah in 2014 and Nixon in China in summer 2012, is sure to become a more frequent staple in SFO’s repertoire.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Act 3’s Mad Scene─  The main reason for Lucia’s enduring popularity is the Act 3’s Mad Scene.  Great Lucias become one with the music to embody a young woman ripped apart by inner demons.  Lucia, mourning her mother’s recent death, has been coerced by her brother Enrico, her closest remaining relative, into an arranged marriage and has been crushed by the loss of her true love, Edgardo.  On their wedding night, she stabs her new husband to death and wanders delirious amongst the wedding guests in a bloody nightdress with her hair a tangled mess.  Shagimuratova’s singing had been so captivating for the first two acts, particularly Act 1’s “Quando rapito in estasi,” which brought me to my feet, we knew we were in for a treat.  Indeed, she left nothing in the tank.  Her interpretation of  “Il dolce suono…Spargi d’amaro pianto” was chilling, embellished with amazing trills and cascades that showcased the power and sheer beauty of her voice in its highest register.  The cadeneza passages, played evocatively by Principal Flute Julie McKenzie from the pit, were very well-coordinated, as if it had been practiced several times.  It rightfully earned an ovation with prolonged whistles and whoops and left me with the impression that, for this Lucia, her final exit was a form of victory over the men who had controlled her in one way or another.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, oozed with such virility and tonal mastery that now I feel compelled to follow his career.  His initial physical encounters with Shagimuratova/Lucia, a new partner, seemed somewhat stiff though, particularly the scene in Act 1where he is comforted by Lucia and lays his lead in her lap but their passion grew more believable as the opera progressed.  His grappling with what he perceives as Lucia’s betrayal was enthralling and in the richly textured “Chi me frena in tal momento” sextet that ends Act II, when he bursts in insisting that he still loves Lucia, he was blazing.  In the finale, the punishing, demanding Wolf-Crag” scene, Beczala gifted us with rapid, jarring shifts in emotion, bel canto at its best.

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

And pitted against him, as Enrico, was powerhouse American baritone Brian Mulligan, fresh from his masterful lead in SFO’s Sweeney Todd.  And much like that deranged barber, his Enrico also acted from sheer desperation─he was aware of his sister Lucia’s desires and her fragility but torn by his need to save the Lammermore line as well as to ensure his own future.  In Act 3’s tour de force showdown between Enrico and Edgardo, both Mulligan and Beczala seemed to be feeding off of each other, singing gloriously and ratcheting up the drama.

Turning heads─ It was impossible to miss the sleekly coiffed redhead mezzo Zanda Švēde, Lucia’s handmaid Alisa.  The tall slim beauty was a vision in Mattie Ullrich’s Max-Mara like costuming  From the moment she sang her Act 1warning to Lucia to break up with Edgardo, her impassioned voice had me.  She was particularly impressive in Act 2’s sextet against much more seasoned singers.  Also making the most of his small role and SFO debut was French bass-baritone  Nicolas Testè as Raimundo, the Chaplan.

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

For this new production, rather than the 17th century hills of Scotland, Michael Cavanaugh’s staging sets Sir Walter Scott’s story in “modern-mythic Scotland, a dystopian near future where the lines are blurred between family, country and corporation.” The sets relied on clean-cut marble slabs which opened and closed in various configurations and a huge stone obelisk center stage to impart a stark cool ambiance that was accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of rolling ocean waves, thunderous skies and hilly Scottish landscapes.

Mattie Ullrich’s costumes ranged from sleek unadorned dresses in charcoal hues to the wedding party’s traditional long full-skirted ball-gowns in jewel tones with intriguing flower headdresses.  The flowers were so large they enforced the association of women as walking flowers, mere stylized objects.  Poor Shagimuratova presumably had to make do with what was available at the last minute─unattractive Victorian-style dresses with lots of gathers around the waist and bodice, the very worse costuming for a slightly round figure.  Her sumptuous voice was all the adornment this beauty needed to make her mark.

Details:  There are no remaining performances of Lucia di Lammermoor.   You can catch Albina Shagimuratova as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute which has 7 remaining performances and runs through November 20, 2015.  For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

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November 1, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: San Francisco Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” at San Francisco Opera through July 6, 2013

 

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sparkles as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sparkles as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

At last Wednesday’s opening performance of Offenbach’s classic, The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), at San Francisco Opera, it was Olympia (soprano Hye Jung Lee), the mechanical doll,  who stole the hearts of the audience and mezzo-soprano Angela Brower who triumphed in her remarkable company debut as the Muse/Nicklausse.  Lee seemed to flutter magically across the stage, singing gleefully and hitting incredibly high notes with precision.  For Brower, who sings throughout the entire opera, it was an act of wooing the audience with the sheer beauty of her voice. 

This is French director, Laurent Pelly’s new co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and L’Opéra National de Lyon which had its premiere in Barcelona earlier this year. The libretto is by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.  The story takes real life German poet E.T.A. Hoffmann and places him in three stories of failed love.  Singing the title role is tenor Matthew Polenzani, whom many will recognize from his lead role in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the delightful comic opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 season and was transmitted to millions via “Live in HD.”   He was joined by the French soprano Natalie Dessay, as Antionia; Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Olympia; mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as Giuletta in her company debut, and American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend Nicklausse. 

The opera’s staging, with set designs by Chantal Thomas, based on the moody work of the Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was exquisite in its simplicity.  Massive blue walls framed the action and then angularly closed in or moved out, just like the cropping tool in Photoshop, resulting in refreshing new orientations.  Low lighting bathed the set, evoking a dream-like space which lent itself to the dark tone of the story.  Since 1988, Thomas has collaborated with Pelly in roughly 40 productions and two seem to be in harmony.  Her ingenious Act II staging for Olympia the mechanical doll, which employed wonderfully zany machinery to spirit the doll across the stage, brought down the house.

Tenor Mathew Polenzani immediately caught my attention in the Prologue with his Il ètait une fois à la cour d’Eisenach, Hoffmann’s ballad about the dwarf Kleinzach, which sets the stage for his mind to wonder back to beautiful women and his love life.  Throughout the evening he was in top form with lively and powerful singing but less commendable acting—on many occasions, it was hard to actually feel the love whose loss he was lamenting.

The surprise stand-out of the evening was American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower in her company debut as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend and constant companion Nicklausse.  In a move that is truly operatic, Bower stepped in rather later to replace Alice Coote in the production.  She nailed it from the moment she stepped on stage, showing a real command of the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements and trumping most of the other better-known singers with her powerful voice, capable of such sweet and tender emotion.    Her Act I aria Une poupèe aux yeux d’èmail was lush and energetic.  Sung in the eccentric scientist Spalanzani’s parlor room, it warns Hoffman of a mechanical doll that looked human but fell in love with a copper bird.  Brower comes to San Francisco fresh from her success in the role last season at the Bayerische Staastoper opposite Diana Damrau and Rolando Villazón— a performance that was broadcast on European television and captured for DVD.  She is an ensemble member of the Bayerische Staatsoper.   She was also quite lovely in her Act III duet with mezzo Irene Roberts, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amou.

If you saw nothing but Act I, Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee’s Olympia, the mechanical doll, it would have been worth the price of admission.  Lee, a Merola Program alumna, dazzled SF Opera audiences last summer with her company debut performance as Madame Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China.  As Olympia, she outdid herself.   Dressed in a silver gown, she fluttered around the stage, legless, leaving the audience to wonder how  it was happening.   She then took to the floor.  Wearing hidden inline skates, she glided all around the stage, literally running circles around Hoffmann, all while hitting notes in the stratospheric range of E and F with precision.  The audience gave her, and the ingenious device which served as her chariot, a well-deserved long ovation with several whoops and whistles.

Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as the mechanical doll, Olympia, and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as the mechanical doll, Olympia, and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

It’s been six years since Natalie Dessay’s San Francisco Opera debut, and sole Bay Area appearance, in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor.  She was enchanting in Wednesday’s Act II as “Antonia,” and despite a noticeable decline in her upper register; she was lovely in her mid-range throughout the entire performance.  Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann’s unattainable love.  Dessay was originally scheduled to sing all three, a feat that only a few—like Beverly Sills and Edita Gruberoa—had pulled off in the past.  Apparently, she pulled back after re-evaluating where her voice stands.  She was wonderful in C’est une chanson d’amour, her love duet with Hoffmann.  Its drama was heightened by the wizardry of the staging which transformed yet again, pulling them apart from each other into separate balconies where they sang longingly to each other.

There’s just one Dessay.  Anyone familiar with her performances can’t help but love the verve and mettle this petite French dynamo brings to any role, many of which have been made accessible through the Met’s “Live in HD” telecasts.  A special turn of her head, the flash of her eyes, a quick dash—I was living for identifiable “Dessay moves” and there were many.   Her trio with her mother’s ghost (Margaret Mezzacappa) and Dr. Miracle (Christian Van Horn) was also lovely vocally but the creepy projected image of the ghost cast such a dark pallor over the idea of a benevolent spirit, that it was hard to feel the love connection between Antonia and her late mother.  Copyright law prohibits a reproduction of the program cover which features Spilliaert’s intensely dark and oppressive self-portrait from 1907-8 where he seems to be transitioning into an angel of death.  The heavy milieu of this work seemed to fuel this very disturbing and macabre video projection.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as his frail love Antonia, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as his frail love Antonia, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Tenor Steven Cole imbued his four servant roles (Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio) with distinct personality as did bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, who sang his villainous roles (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) with aplomb, especially Dapertutto’s difficult Act III Scintille, diamant.  As Stella, Hoffmann’s Milanese love interest, Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino ended the long evening with a burst of bright energy.

Patrick Fournillier’s conducting was impressive throughout.  He kept the orchestra under rein while evoking a beautiful and vibrant sound.

Details:  The Tales of Hoffmann runs through July 6, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

Remaining Performances: The eight remaining performances of The Tales of Hoffmann are June 11 (8 p.m.); June 14 (8 p.m.); June 20 (7:30 p.m.); June 23 (2 p.m.); June 27 (7:30 p.m.); June 30 (2 p.m.); July 3 (7:30 p.m.); and July 6 (8 p.m.)  Click here to see cast scheduling information.  Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

Cast:

Hoffman—Matthew Polenzani

Antonia—Natalie Dessay

Olympia—Hye Jung Lee

Giuletta—Irene Roberts

Stella—Jacqueline Piccolino

Nicklausse, The Muse—Angela Bower

Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf—Christian Van Horn

Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio—Steven Cole

Antonia’s Mother—Margaret Mezzacappa

Spalanzani—Thomas Glenn

Crespel—James Creswell

Nathanael—Matthew Grills

Hermann—Joo Won Kang

Schemil, Luther—Hadleigh Adams

Creative Team:

Conductor—Patrick Fournillier

Director—Laurent Pelly

Set Designer—Chantal Thomas

Lighting Designer—Joël Adam

Associate Director—Christian Räth

New libretto version/ dramaturg—Agathe Mélinand

Chorus Director—Ian Robertson

 

June 11, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review–“The Beautiful Person” (“La Belle Personne”) even the angst of teen love plays better in French, San Francisco Film Society, Sept 4-10, 2009

Lea Seydoux as "Junie," the new girl in class in "La Belle Personne"

Léa Seydoux as "Junie," the new girl in class in Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personne"

 “The Beautiful Person,” set in Paris, in an upscale high-school, made me contemplate the unthinkable—if I ever had to do high-school over again, how would it go?  How would I react to the various opportunities—amorous and otherwise– that unfold?  Loosely inspired by the scandalous 17th century novel La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette, director Christophe Honoré (“Ma mère,” “Love Songs”) continues his exploration of French romantic intrigue.  Instead of Parisian aristocracy in the court of Henry II, Honoré and co-writer Gilles Taurand set their action in contemporary Paris in an upscale high school.  The students are interesting, beautiful, and unkempt– the teachers too–and they explore love and passion while trying to stay engaged with what seems a very loosely regimented but awesome program of poetry, humanities, Italian, English and math.  Junie (Léa Seydoux, “The Last Mistress”) is the new girl at school, a transfer student, who has come to live with her cousin Matthias just after the death of her mother.  Voluptuous, alabaster-skinned, with a tragic air, she becomes the object of male attention and is quickly welcomed into Matthias’ clique of school friends.  

Mild-mannered Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), falls hard for her and their first conversation sets up a loose plot.  Otto tells her that Junie is also Néron’s tormentor in Racine’s 17th  century tragic play “Brittancus” and they discuss how it ends badly for Junie who takes vows and never marries.  Later, egged on by his friends, Otto professes his love to Junie.  She tells him what she needs “Don’t lie to me and look after me, always.”   Otto agrees.  Junie French kisses him publicly in the school hall and the two become an item.   Junie is bursting with magnetic mystique ..she is photographed in the hallway by a student who is an amateur photographer; she is noticed by women as well.   At one point in the film, an evocative song on a jukebox plays lyrics that compliment what is going on throughout the film–  “She was so pretty that I didn’t dare love her.”

 When newbie Junie arrives in Italian class, a student is in the midst of a presentation about Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.   Junie sits down by the teacher Mr. Nemour (Louis Garrel) and the two eye each other nervously.  She abruptly walks out, in tears, during Maria Callas’ spellbinding aria, leaving her books behind.  After this brief encounter, Mr. Nemour too falls hard for Junie and even steals a picture of her from her notebook.  Nemour, a dark-eyed dreamy lothario, who barely looks like he is out of high school, is in the midst of two affairs–one with a colleague (Florence Perin) and the other with a student Catherine (Anaïs Demoustier).   Nemours breaks it off with both women and confesses his love for Junie to his colleague who advises him that “loving a student is too easy.”  “Not this one” Nemours replies “I’m a total love-sick mess.”  To which his friend insighftfully replies “You seem more disappointed in love than in the concept of love at first sight.”   Indeed the complexity, no mess, that ensues is overwhelming.

Louis Garrel and Lea Seydoux in Christophe Honore's "La Belle Personne"

Louis Garrel and Léa Seydoux in Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personne"

 We get subtle hints that stalwart Junie is falling for Nemour but trying hard not to.  She is terribly afraid of giving in to what she assumes will be a grand, once in a life-time love and  denies herself Nemour but snacks on safe love with endearing Otto.  Meanwhile, a subplot emerges involving a love letter that is passed around and mistakenly thought to be Nemour’s but really involves Junie’s cousin Matthias (Esteban Carvajal-Alegria) and his affair with fellow student Martin (Martin Siméon).  Mathias has hidden his homosexuality and, in addition to Martin, has carried on with another student Henri (Simon Truxillo) who is in love with him and very vindictive.  The letter threatens to expose everything if the correct author and intended recipient are revealed.   But it’s all a mess.  The letter changes hands several times and when Junie reads it, she assumes that Nemour has written it to her and takes actions that push this volatile group into certain doom.

 This has all the makings of a great drama but falls short.  The performances of the lead characters lack real depth and it’s very hard to get inside their heads, with the exception of Otto.  Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel are enthralling to look at…and, based on looks alone, we can certainly envision them in bed together, but how would that happen?  Their conversation is basically flat and they fail to connect naturally or with any tenderness…time after time.  Junie is cold or indifferent, sending Nemour into confusion after confusion.  By the time they finally come to an understanding, it is too late.  And even when it is too late, we don’t get any feeling of implosion.  Junie’s constraint, fear of succumbing to her passion, is what needs to be further explored.  The potential is there but there’s no spark.  Nicole (Chantal Neuwirth), a maternal and wise older woman who works at the local café where they all hang-out, takes a shine to Junie, and delivers one of the most authentic, but too brief, performances in the film.   The cinematography is marvelous, capturing gray, drizzly Paris and some candid close-ups.  The sountrack ranges from opera to Nick Drake , the lyrics tracking or accentuating the action in the film.  

Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 4-10, 2009: 2:05 pm, 4:05 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:35 pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:40 am.

August 30, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment