In 'Quartet,' Opera Singers are Retired but not Retiring

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Back in October, I wrote about the peculiar fascination some opera lovers have for superannuated opera singers who still perform before the public. Their frailty and artistry combined with a reluctance to see their careers end is part of what is so touching about these rare people. I thought of this article yesterday as I watched "Quartet," a new film directed by Dustin Hoffman with a screenplay by Ronald Harwood based on his play of the same name.

The story is set in a retirement home in England named for Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), the colorful British conductor known both for his joy in music-making and a rather complicated private life with numerous romantic liaisons and friction with his wealthy father. The Beecham family made a fortune selling laxatives, eliciting a very funny line, tartly delivered by Maggie Smith, which I will not spoil for you.

The residents of this home in the film are retired opera singers, instrumentalists, music hall performers, and one flamboyant impresario named Cedric, wonderfully played in large dressing gowns by Michael Gambon, who bellows “It’s pronounced Seed-rick!” whenever someone says his name as one might assume it should be. Any film with Michael Gambon is worth attending because we see him rarely now and he is one of our greatest actors. But the strength of "Quartet” is in the cavalcade of actors and musicians who pass through the scene and give the story whatever authenticity it achieves.

The four principal characters are elderly singers each played by an excellent actor. Smith is Jean Horton, a leading soprano who always put her career first and is no longer willing to sing at all. She feels herself to be the best and every resident of Beecham House, except for one, treats her that way. Pauline Collins plays Cissy Robson, a mezzo-soprano who clearly sang sexy characters and still has considerable allure. Tom Courtenay is Reginald Paget, a tenor who was enough of a romantic to sometimes put love before career and pay a price for that choice. Billy Connolly is Wilf Bond, who has had a stroke just damaging enough to make him say whatever he feels and do what he wants, no matter how it is perceived by others. Connolly finds the tender humor in the role without overacting and is the source of many good laughs. It is never made quite clear if his character was a baritone or a bass.

The "Quartet” in the film’s title is the famous section in the last act of Verdi’s Rigoletto in which the Duke of Mantua, who had previously seduced Gilda (daughter of Rigoletto), now romances the prostitute Maddalena, whose brother Sparafucile is an assassin hired by Rigoletto to kill the Duke. The situation is ripe with drama, especially when Maddalena persuades Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life and kill Gilda instead. The characters played by Smith, Collins, Courtenay and Connolly had made a famous recording of the opera and now find themselves in a situation in which they are asked to perform the “Quartet” again to raise much-needed funds for Beecham House. Will they be able to do it?

I won’t reveal who ultimately sings in the quartet and how it is played, but here is the quartet from the 1971 recording of Rigoletto conducted by Richard Bonynge that starred Joan Sutherland (Gilda), Huguette Tourangeau (Maddalena), Luciano Pavarotti (Duke of Mantua), Sherrill Milnes (Rigoletto) and Martti Talvela (Sparafucile) that is used in the film:

Harwood’s screenplay is a bit too pat and contrived in its conflation of opera and the rigors of old age, meaning that much of the contradictory complexity of the roles must be mined and suggested by the actors rather than existing in the words. I did like the fact that one character who suffers from dementia was portrayed realistically and without being patronizing or falsely sentimental. It was also made gently evident that, even when memory for words, facts and faces can sometimes be cloudy, musical memory resides in a different place and seems to be more resilient.

The four principal actors, wonderful though they are, seem to be acting the role of opera singers rather than fully being those people. I have known so many actors and opera singers in my life and admire both groups. But I find that most of them have a respectful regard for one another rather than a full comprehension of the gifts and mysteries required to excel at their respective arts. 

Let us never forget that actors express character primarily through words while opera singers express character primarily through music. Both singers and actors are required to act, of course, but the acting is based on different assumptions. A corollary to this is that it is not a given that a stage director who is excellent in spoken theater or film might be good for opera, where being musical is the key to unlocking the rich textures in an opera’s story. Similarly, not every great opera director is suitable for theater or cinema.

In "Quartet" it falls to the supporting cast to give texture and flavor to the film and this is part of its strength. Hoffman cannily chose to cast real musicians and actors in the roles of the elderly residents. Their carriage, speech patterns and evident affection for their art forms are real. Their old faces retain great beauty and wisdom and I loved looking at them in scenes set in the dining room or salons of Beecham House.

In that group I spotted a beautiful, charismatic woman who I did not know was in the film. She looked remarkably like the Welsh soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones (b. 1936) in a red wig covering her long silver hair. And indeed it was! Her character is named Anne Langley but she might as well be Dame Gwyneth herself. We learn that Anne Langley was the great rival to Smith’s Jean Horton. The two women cagily assess one another as the other characters all look on with a combination of terror and anticipation. Smith is an expert actress but so is Jones. She can sit at a table and utter only a few words but you feel her power.

Anne Langley is also expected to sing at the fund-raising concert but she will only do a solo while all the other performers appear in groups. In an interview with Jones, I learned that Hoffman shortened or deleted some of the musical performances in the film. This is a shame and Jones makes no secret through her tense smile that she too would have preferred that her entire performance of the aria, “Vissi d’arte,” be shown in the film rather than just a snippet. It is not quite four minutes and would have been a deeply affecting moment in the film to show a real opera singer, still beautiful and full of temperament but no longer in peak voice, to sing about having lived for her art and for love. Here is an older performance of Jones in that aria:  

An interesting detail was the fact that the musicians’ home is named for Beecham, who played a vital role in bringing Strauss’s Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier to Britain. Casting Jones, one of the most compelling interpreters of the Marschallin, Elektra and Salome, gave a spiritual core to the film that even those actors could not achieve.

Vignettes in the film of elderly performers in bits from The Mikado and other works brought to mind the aging showgirls from Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1971 musical Follies. These moments were not maudlin but, rather, showed that just because you might no longer have a stage does not mean that you have lost your skills or your love of performing. I would not have minded if the film were a bit longer to include fuller performances. In fact, they would have been preferable to much of the badinage that flew about among certain characters and became tiresome.

Opera lovers will realize that Harwood and, perhaps, Hoffman took inspiration from the marvelous documentary, "Il Bacio di Tosca" ("Tosca’s Kiss"), about the life of real retired musicians at the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Giuseppe Verdi, who conceived of it, paid for its construction and is buried there, called “la mia opera più bella” (“my most beautiful work”). I have visited this home often and have had the pleasure of meeting and listening to performances by these wonderful old artists. 

A recent development at the Casa di Riposo is that young musicians from foreign countries also live there, studying with the older artists and providing company and a loving ear for recollections. This is a wonderful place for opera lovers to support. The institution counts among its past supporters Renata Tebaldi and Luciano Pavarotti, whose names are carved into a wall in the atrium.

After attending “Quartet,” which I commend despite its limitations, take 90 minutes and, even if you do not speak Italian, watch "Il Bacio di Tosca" to understand more about living for art: