In what should be the pivotal scene of Paul Weitz’s Bel Canto, an American soprano played by Julianne Moore stands at the balcony of a mansion that’s been seized by left-wing guerrillas in an unnamed Latin American country, and sings “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca out to the masses nearby. It’s an almost absurdist setup. Moore’s Roxane Coss is among the guests held prisoner by a group of rebel soldiers, who’ve raided a private concert she was giving to some international dignitaries. Now, after a week stuck in the mansion, with security forces surrounding the building, both rebels and hostages have begun to go stir crazy. Their water has been cut off. Tensions are high. One guerrilla leader has the idea of making Roxane sing. “When they hear the beauty of your voice, these government criminals, perhaps they’ll find a solution to our situation,” he says. “It might remind them what is at stake.”
But something else happens when Roxane sings. Everybody listens. The throngs massed around the palace — ordinary citizens, journalists, military and police officials, and maybe even those stuck inside — hear something that speaks to their common humanity.
This may seem like an odd narrative contrivance to modern-day audiences, who’ve come to think of opera as a pretty but arcane art form that serves mostly as an indulgence for the wealthy and powerful. This was not always the case. The history of opera is loaded with examples of it as a political and cultural force, whether it’s inspiring the masses or scandalizing the powerful. A performance of Daniel Auber’s nationalist opera La Muette de Portici was one of the events that kicked off the Belgian revolution of 1830. A century later, Dmitri Shostakovich was threatened by Stalin after the Soviet strongman heard his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The legendary stage director Peter Sellars believed Mozart to have been a political revolutionary, and once declared “every single opera” by the Austrian composer to be “a radical gesture of equality between the ruling class and the working class.” (Not everybody buys his reading, but the class-conscious politics that run through of The Marriage of Figaro were certainly notable at the time.) “Opera was born of the same period — its tail end — that gave birth to the notion of the ‘modern’ state, or more expansively, modern politics,” writes Mitchell Cohen in the prologue to Opera and Politics: A History From Monteverdi to Mozart. During that period, the late Renaissance, nation-states were consolidating political power even as increasingly complex and even revolutionary ideas were starting to be expressed through music.
Back to Bel Canto and Julianne Moore on that balcony. The guerrillas’ gambit works. After Roxane sings — her voice in the film belongs to the legendary American soprano Renée Fleming — the taps are turned back on and relations between captors and captives start to thaw. Roxane’s impromptu performance serves as a catalyst for a series of friendships and romantic dalliances — including one between herself and the opera-crazy Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) and another between a translator and one of the rebels. Guerrillas and hostages play chess together, and learn each other’s languages. At one point, the diva begins to teach a young soldier who aspires to be a singer himself. A story that seemed to turn on violence, terror, and politics now becomes one centered on beauty, art, and love.
Opera encompasses both sides of that transformation in Bel Canto, which was adapted from the acclaimed 2001 novel by Ann Patchett. Initially, it functions as a symbol of wealth and power: Hosokawa adores Roxane’s singing, and we learn that the original interrupted concert was organized by this government to try and coax him into opening a factory in their country. He admits to now feeling guilty, because he never actually had any plans to do business there; he merely wanted to see her perform, and strung the officials along. For her part, Roxane notes that she refused to do this event multiple times, until they offered her more money. These are two people steeped in class, power, and privilege, and they’ve learned over the years to use their status. In part, they represent the transformation at the heart of Bel Canto, between what opera has cynically become and what it once was — and could be again.
On film, opera has had an interesting history. True, in a lot of Hollywood movies, it (and classical music in general) is often used to suggest villainy — of the both refined and sadistic kind. (An interesting recent New York Times article on Bel Canto was titled, “Opera in Film Takes On a New Note in Bel Canto (It’s Not Evil).”) But elsewhere, filmmakers have tapped into the more politically charged legacy of opera. Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) opens with a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore that inspires a protest by nationalist revolutionaries intent on liberating Venice from Austrian forces. The scene isn’t some mere fictional fancy: Verdi was a key figure in Italy’s Risorgimento movement, and “Viva Verdi!” became a rallying cry of the nationalists — in part because the composer’s name was a convenient acronym for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia,” [Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy].
The work of Verdi also figures prominently in the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, who kicks off his Marxist historical epic 1900 (1976) with an impassioned announcement and invocation of the composer’s 1901 death. In 1970’s The Spider’s Stratagem, Bertolucci set a failed assassination attempt of Mussolini against a performance of Rigoletto. The protagonist of his 1964 film Before the Revolution, a young upper-middle-class man trying to reconcile his Marxism with his bourgeois background, betrays his political ideals during a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. Tellingly, and tantalizingly, Bertolucci himself was attached to direct Bel Canto for some years.
One does wonder what a filmmaker steeped in the history and aesthetics of opera might have brought to this material. Because in order for the conceit of Bel Canto to work, the audience has to give in at least a little bit to the operatic impulse — we have to be transformed along with the people in the movie. Therefore, a scene like Julianne Moore singing on a balcony should be rapturous, even indulgent; it should transport us and redefine this milieu, so that we’ll believe that these captors and captives might begin to create a weirdly utopian community beyond those mansion walls, however transitory it may be.
Weitz’s filming of this scene, while proficient and reasonably well-acted, feels curiously earthbound. You can sense the executives in the back room telling him to get on with it. The scene doesn’t last very long, and soon enough, the movie goes along on its merry way, telling its story efficiently and unremarkably, and with surprisingly little atmosphere. With its complex and often glorious and moving history, opera is the right vessel for the changing social dynamics Bel Canto seeks to portray. But at times, one wonders if the film itself isn’t afraid of the true power of opera, and thus holds it at a distance.