Will Quartet do for opera what Black Swan did for ballet?
Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut is a genteel comedy based on Ronald Harwood's 1999 play. Set in a retirement home for musicians, the slight tale revolves around a group of superannuated opera singers.
Can the trio of Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins persuade Maggie Smith, the Gilda in their legendary Rigoletto quartet, to join them in reviving it for the retirement home's annual concert? Of course they can - and I'm not spoiling anything for you by telling you that. This movie has more road signs and fewer plot twists than the Highway Code.It also has a supporting role for a true opera legend - Dame Gwyneth Jones - splendid as a catty, egomaniacal version of herself. Dame Gwyneth feeds Dame Maggie the best line of the evening (this one I won't spoil) as she recalls her own success as Gilda. She even supplies a spot of proper singing with a snatch of Vissi d'arte (you can hear it in the trailer below).
It's a rare moment. For a movie that's all about opera singers, there are precious few vocal interludes. You understand why though when you hear Billy Connolly, whose Italian is even worse than his jokes, attempt a line from La traviata's Brindisi. And we're supposed to believe that Maggie Smith's tenorial boom could scale Gildaesque heights, when in truth she'd have trouble with the Duke's top C. Wisely, Hoffmann never shatters our illusions by allowing us to hear the quartet.
Musical compensation comes in the form of a few charming cameos from genuine retired musicians. At first they're gauche and inhibited, like most amateur actors, but as they pick up their clarinet or violin or whatever, their faces relax and their movements gain fluency, a testament to their lifelong marriage to their music.
I doubt if Quartet is going to convert any opera-haters, or even opera-fencesitters. And, as Black Swan did for balletomanes, I'm sure certain aspects will irritate real fans. With its autumnal plot and geri cast, it's basically a flagrant pitch for the grey pound. But judging by the tastes of Papa Intermezzo (German expressionist masterpieces ohne subtitles) and Mama Intermezzo (anything where Ewan McGregor gets his kit off) I'm not even sure it will hit the target there.
For anyone interested in the real lives of retired opera singers, I highly recommend the 1984 documentary Il Bacio di Tosca, made at the Milan retirement home founded by Verdi, and allegedly an influence on Harwood's play.
Photos here were taken at the UK gala premiere on 15 October 2012. Quartet is released in the UK at the end of December. It 's co-produced by BBC Films, so will presumably turn up on the box in the not too distant future as well.