The movie cameras are back at The Paris Opera again, but unlike Fredrick Wiseman’s 2009 documentary La danse, and the 2015 film Reset that tracked Benjamin Millepied’s first full year as the Opera Ballet’s new director, this new film from Swiss director Jean-Stephane Bron is all about drama. Most of which seems to happen off-stage.
The film is a fascinating glimpse at some of the behind-the-scenes action during the 2015-2016 season which proved to be one of the most tumultuous in the company’s long history. They had some greatly acclaimed premieres and revivals but also more complex issues such as several strikes, Millepied wavering about staying or going, and to top it off there was the terrorist attack that killed 89 at Bataclan Theater which so unsettled the whole city.
The Opera with its two homes, the historic Opera Garnier and the ultramodern Opera Bastille, also had a newly appointed Director Stephane Lissner in place. We see him juggling all his functions from welcoming President Hollande to a performance, putting his stamp on the opera selections for the season, instructing his negotiators on the strike, and even demanding that they lower ticket prices which have skyrocketed more than inflation.
He is just one of the key players that Bron’s camera settles on throughout the film, but the lack of any narration combined with the fact that they didn’t edit it chronologically, made it hard to follow some of the drama at times. In some instances they were odd fleeting glances of a scenario or two that were simply baffling.
However sometimes his rather subjective choices of what to film and follow gave us some gold nuggets, such as an extended scene with the Welsh bass-baritone star Sir Bryn Terfel. Equally following the progress of a disarmingly charming young Russian singer Mikhail Tymoshenko from his initial audition for the Opera’s Academy to giving solo recitals which enthralled the audience even though Tymoshenko was seen in his dressing room berating himself.
The emphasis on the performers and not the performances means that the very brief glimpses we see of the operas and ballets are usually from wings. His cameras were however very central filming some elementary children being taught wind instruments in a scheme the Opera runs, but strangely enough they were, without exception, singularly unhappy about the whole experience. Even the enormous Bull dragged onto the stage to be an fleeting Opera Star didn’t look as miserable as they did.
The Paris Opera is not just a must-see for any opera/dance aficionados but also anyone who loves fly-on-walls documentaries, for whilst this may not be a perfect one, it is nevertheless still fascinating to view.