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The Paris Opera

Director: Bron. Film Movement, 110 mins., subtitled. Opens October 18 in Manhattan

Your Backstage Pass

A revealing new documentary goes behind the scenes of L’Opéra National de Paris.

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Olly olly oxen free!: preparing Moses und Aron for Paris Opera Courtesy Film Movement
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JEAN-STÉPHANE BRON'S enjoyable documentary about the Paris Opera’s 2015–16 season begins with the Meistersinger prelude, bubbling forth as technicians raise the tricouleur above the Bastille Opera house. It’s an image arrestingly fraught with European cultural history: what would Wagner have thought? Or de Gaulle? Prelude still playing, the film segues to a high-level “talking points” meeting before a news conference with deft general manager Stéphane Lissner and music director Philippe Jordan. Bron’s editing communicates several facts upfront: uniquely (though the Mariinsky and Bolshoi might dispute this), the company has two major stages and a ballet troupe equaling its opera troupe in prestige. Conscious of accusations of elitism, it also makes available a large number of discounted tickets. We also gather that all’s not well with the tenure of Benjamin Millepied, the ballet troupe’s celebrity leader, recently returned from America. But, though we see some ballet scenes, the Millepied story is best sought elsewhere, in the documentary Reset.

There are other stories to follow here. The company’s conducting roster that season included Fabio Luisi, Marc Minkowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as several others of note, but you wouldn’t know that from the film, which concentrates on three productions led by the eloquent, sympathetic Jordan, all new or, in the case of Stefan Herheim’s delightful (but detailed) Die Meistersinger, new to the house. The other productions on which Jordan collaborates aren’t exactly small potatoes—Schönberg’s Moses und Aron, imagined by director/designer Romeo Castellucci (see DVD review here), and Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, directed by Alvis Hermanis. All three pieces, of course, demand virtuosity (and a lot of rehearsals) from chorus and orchestra.

Bron smartly focuses on Mikhail Timoshenko, a charming young Russian bass-baritone of evident promise. He auditions with Leporello’s catalogue aria and is accepted into the company’s Opera Academy. New to Paris, the French language and the workings of a big international theater, he makes a good onscreen surrogate through whom viewers experience many aspects of the Opéra. We hear him rehearse Méphistophélès’s lovely “Voici des roses,” from Damnation, and perform it at an in-house concert for invited guests. Later, he hears his idol, Bryn Terfel, sing it, and they interact winningly.

Several set pieces portray the operations of the company and its hard-working staff. Then-president François Hollande appears at the Palais Garnier, its red carpet filled with models and stars; the theater responds to the Bataclan terrorist massacre. Castellucci’s concepts for Schönberg’s enormous masterpiece cause friction: asked to sing in a large, sound-muffling, plexiglass box filled with dry ice while a large, live bull is onstage, the chorus objects. German baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky jumps in with aplomb for Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs with almost no notice; we see him aided by colleagues on- and offstage. (Brandon Jovanovich, very welcoming, shines as Walther.) Seeing such conflicts negotiated—sound vs. image, comfort vs. risk, publicity vs. substance—should fascinate anyone who’s ever frequented an opera house.  —David Shengold 

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