★★☆ ☆ ☆
Opera is like very expensive wine. You feel obligated to like it, and often pretend you do, but often you are not sure if you actually enjoy it or just want to enjoy it. “The Paris Opera,” directed by Jean-Stéphane Bron, is a film that, for most people watching, is hard to truly enjoy.
Those who appreciate the art of opera are in luck. “The Paris Opera” presents great opera, filled with immensely moving songs and dances, and has a high production value. The music and performances in the film are enough to make it worthwhile for opera buffs to watch. Opera is characteristically a highly dynamic and emotional art form — one that can elicit tears, laughter and gasps, even if you do not understand the language. However, Bron’s documentary on the Paris Opera falls flat, rarely eliciting any emotional responses.
The film follows the production and performance of the Paris Opera’s 2015 season from behind the scenes. Stage managers, opera singers, choreographers, directors and all other characters who go into the creation of a production as large as the Paris Opera are featured.
One of the flaws of this film is that it tries to capture as much of the production process as possible.
There are far too many people featured and not nearly enough time to gain a real understanding of their roles. By the time viewers begin to become invested in any character, a new person is quickly introduced and given the camera’s focus.
The only character who was explored in sufficient depth was the aspiring opera singer Mikhail Timoshenko, a Russian bass-baritone. His story felt relatively complete: He arrived in France speaking little French, auditioned for the opera, and, at the end of the film, performed an emotional aria, or long solo song, for an appreciative audience. An entire documentary could have been devoted to Timoshenko, his story, struggles and successes. That film would have felt more human and whole than “The Paris Opera.”
Opera’s emotion is fundamentally lacking in Bron’s documentary. A moment was captured when two stagehands were singing along to an aria in the wings, dramatically and slightly out of tune. This was the among the most real and emotional moments in the entire film because it showed the joy that opera can bring to people. After this 15-second segment, however, the stagehands were not seen again, and it was back to the film’s uninteresting recipe of how to make an opera.
Bron did a wonderful job structuring the nonlinear plot in a way that was easy and intuitive to follow.
Unfortunately, very little actually happens during the film’s 110-minute runtime. There are dramatic and tragic moments, for example, when the Bataclan theater in Paris was attacked by terrorists, but Bron largely glosses over them, instead devoting more screen time to less fraught topics like rehearsals or the debate over ticket prices.
“The Paris Opera” encourages viewers to evaluate their appreciation for the art of opera, but, like all art forms, opera is not for everybody. One emotionally charged scene shows Timoshenko in the wings, watching a seasoned singer perform and weeping from the power of the music. This reaction is expected given the magnitude and power of the Paris Opera, but some people simply will not appreciate it.
“The Paris Opera” achieves its goal of providing insight into the workings of a large-scale production, but it simply does not do it in a way that is compelling to the average viewer. For viewers who are genuinely interested in opera, or desire an impressive film to add to their repertoire, this may be the perfect movie. But if you are not looking for either of those, you might want to consider picking something else.