As has been seen already in Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse” (2009) and Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s “Reset” (2015), running the institution that is the subject of Jean-Stéphane Bron’s brisk and thoughtful “The Paris Opera” can be challenging.
Bron’s documentary covers Stéphane Lissner’s first season as the opera’s director, and it’s a busy one. There is the resignation of Benjamin Millepied, the new director of the ballet side of the operation (the subject of “Reset”). There’s also a national strike that threatens to close the theater, a key performer calling in sick and canceling at the last moment, and the horrific 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in which 89 people were killed.
If it weren’t for Bron’s dexterous, elliptical editing and talent for irony, understatement, and apt juxtapositions, this series of crises, ranging from the comic to the tragic, might have seemed downright, well, operatic.
Instead, Bron’s film is an impressionistic immersion into a complex organization of hundreds of dedicated, talented people, for whom, whatever happens, the show must go on. That includes the staging of such masterworks as Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron” and Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” (Unlike Wiseman and Demaizière and Teurlai, Bron focuses on the opera rather than the ballet side of the company.)
But we don’t get to see much of these productions. There are glimpses from behind a curtain or from the monitor on which Lissner nervously watches an opening-night performance alone in the dark in his imposing office. Instead, Bron pries into activities that tend to undercut the elegance and glamor. Such as a board meeting in which Lissner and others debate lowering ticket prices, or the dialogue between two costume assistants bemoaning how much a diva sweats, or the prostrate breathlessness of a ballerina after she performs a strenuous solo.
Particularly amusing is the search for and training of a ton-and-a-half bull named Easy Rider for his onstage appearance during “Moses and Aaron.” In preparation for his role, the bull listens thoughtfully in his stall to a recording of the opera; it is playing from a speaker next to a lump of dung.
Other stories, in addition to Lissner’s, emerge from the film’s subtly edited flurry of observations. Mikhail Timoshenko, a young Russian baritone, auditions for the company and is stunned and overjoyed to learn he has been accepted. He struggles with his French and trains with humility and intensity. When his idol, the world-famous singer Bryn Terfel, suggests they might work together while he’s in town, Timoshenko is ecstatic. He is less so when he can’t penetrate the gauntlet of admirers lauding Terfel’s performance and get his attention. Later, when Timoshenko is despondent after an unsatisfactory recital, he mutters to himself, “I am useless.”
Far from it, as the penultimate sequence in the film triumphantly demonstrates. Even more rewarding, the last moments of the documentary are reserved for those who are never celebrated but without whom none of the artistry would be possible — the faceless workers who clean up.
THE PARIS OPERA
Directed by Jean-Stéphane Bron. At Brattle Theatre. 110 minutes. Unrated (brief nudity; bovine fecal matter). In French, with subtitles.
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