From the news that comes our way, The Paris Opera is such an unending succession of strikes and scandals that you wonder: Is it ever safe to buy a ticket?
And, yes, in the juicy new Jean-Stephane Bron documentary The Paris Opera, multiple strikes are averted by management as radical theater director Romeo Castellucci — whose work is often been seen at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival — stages Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron with the chorus engulfed in a dense haze and performing alongside a potentially menacing live bull named Easy Rider.
Wouldn't you threaten to go on strike?
You hear the singers fret as they eye the bull. Will it freak out over Schoenberg's thorny, atonal music? If the massive beast falls down, can it get back up? What if somebody in the audience pulls out a red flag?
With low-key firmness, Castellucci gets his way. It's good to know that his work has a steely sense of inner logic, even if we don't know what it is. Come opening night, the Paris Opera chief Stephane Lissner watches on a TV monitor in his office, smiling slightly, probably not in enjoyment of the opera itself but the mere fact that it's onstage. That smile doesn't happen so often. It's a big job.
The Paris Opera encompasses two major theaters — the newish, state-of-the-art Bastille and, across town, the Palais Garnier that has been replicated in films — not to mention the musical Phantom of the Opera. Under this umbrella is also the Paris Opera Ballet.
Historically, French opera has stood for theatrical extravagance, from the reign of Louis XIV to Castellucci and his bull. You might wonder if such theatrical art is worth the cost, and not just financially.
Over the past 30 years, I've never regretted a visit to the always daring, sometimes revelatory, and occasionally dreadful Paris Opera. This film is a magic key card that opens doors most civilians will never see — and with a great sense of exactly what backstage stuff is most interesting to opera people.
With its unpredictable machinations and government meddling, the opera has cruelly defeated some of the best. Conductor Daniel Barenboim was fired from the top job before he even arrived. In this film, the camera witnesses the departure of choreographer Benjamin Millepied after a tenure of only 17 months.
Bron's camera is a silent witness that doesn't necessary explain why certain things are happening. Some may consider this less-mediated approach a strength. Others may find it frustrating. You hear a one-sided phone conversation with Lissner asking Millepied if he's in or out: "I'm not going to sit around waiting for you to make up your mind."
In Millepied's departure speech to his dancers, he says, "I need to create. I need to think." But what exactly happened? (Background research indicates he was defeated by the Paris Opera Ballet's resistance to change.)
One intermittent presence throughout the film is the Russian bass-baritone Mikhail Timoshenko. You see him audition for the young artists program, hear him on the other end of the phone when he's told that he is accepted, see him chatting with his idol, baritone Bryn Terfel. You also hear him backstage, presumably after a less-than-stellar performance, muttering, "I was useless."
Another significant presence is music director Philippe Jordan. Besides looking great on camera, he is a paragon of grace and charm, edging his singers toward greater artistry and leaving you wondering why we haven't seen him in Philadelphia. Well, we have. He guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2007 but received such mixed reviews from the players that this writer was actually ridiculed by some of them for liking his Ein Heldenleben.
Funny thing about chemistry: He didn't win over the relatively cooperative Philadelphians but apparently thrives in one of the more contentious conducting jobs in the world. Again, the camera doesn't try to explain his ability to maintain authority there. Draw your own conclusions.