• Opera Imaginaire: An Animated Opera of the Imagination

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    Most of the opera I watch nowadays on DVD or video tends to be complete performances. But when I first discovered opera, I lapped up any opera-related video I could get my hands on: complete performances, concerts, compilations, and more. Not least intriguing were cartoons inspired by opera, and I don’t just mean the old standbys like What’s Opera, Doc? and Rabbit of Seville. A video that I watched again and again in my early days of opera fandom was Opera Imaginaire, a 1994 compilation of cartoons by various European animators.


    We follow a tuxedo-clad, Italian-accented CGI narrator (though the fakeness of the accent is made clear when he mispronounces “Cherubino”), through a La Scala-style opera house, glancing into various boxes in the auditorium, each of which “contains” an animation segment. Each segment has a different visual style, several even combining animation with live action, and some are funny, some are somber, some are kid-friendly and some are not-so-kid-friendly. But all of them are surreal, and each one is set to an iconic piece of music from an opera:


    Vesti la Giubba (a film by Ken Lidster): A dark comedy version of Pagliacci in stop-motion animation set to that opera’s most famous aria. The characters are portrayed as circus-style clowns and a “happy” ending is tacked on in which Nedda’s ghost reconciles with Canio. The framing sequence tries to trick you into thinking the aria is sung by Caruso (we hear the beginning of his classic recording of it) but once the cartoon proper starts, the voice is actually Franco Corelli’s.


    La Donna é Mobile (a film by Monique Renault): A live-action Duke of Mantua indulges in an impressionistic 2D fantasy, full of women in all their ever-changing guises and various stages of dress and undress. Dancing, flirting, shout-outs to classic French paintings, and bare breasts abound. The aria is sung by Nicolai Gedda.


    Carmen (a film by Pascal Roulin & Christophe Vallaux): In this cartoon set to the Act I children’s chorus (taken from Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’s 1970 recording), a live-action Carmen watches her deck of cards spring to animated life and march like soldiers. Each card depicts one of her choices – Don José, Escamillo, or Death.


    Voi che sapete (a film by Pascal Roulin): This dizzying tribute to Le Nozze di Figaro depicts the cross-dressing adventures of Cherubino with 2D, paper cutout-like characters against a 3D CGI background. The voice we hear belongs to Susanne Danco.


    Madame Butterfly (a film by Jonathan Hills): Cio-Cio-San’s tragic plight is depicted in gentle, beautiful 2D animation, drawn in the style of Japanese watercolors. The soundtrack aria is, of course, “Un bel di,” sung by Felicia Weathers.


    Pearlfishers (a film by Jimmy Murakami): The plot of Les Pêcheurs de Perles is condensed to the length of its famous tenor/baritone duet, and depicted in wispy, black-and-white rotoscoped animation. The singers are Nicolai Gedda and Ernest Blanc.


    “Du also bist mein Braütigam?” (a film by Raimund Krumme): A very geometrical rendition of Pamina’s suicide attempt from The Magic Flute, which once again combines 2D and 3D animation. The characters’ bodies all consist of geometric shapes and the backdrop is an ever-shifting structure of cubes, triangles and rectangles. The music is from Bernard Haitink’s 1981 recording with the Pamina of Lucia Popp.


    Cinderella (a film by Stephen Palmer): A funny, sunny take on the Sextet from La Cenerentola, in which the constant disguises and identity-switching in that opera are cranked up to eleven, and all the characters randomly transform into each other and even into characters from other fairy-tales. The soundtrack is taken from Oliviero di Fabritiis’s 1963 recording of the opera – Giulietta Simionato, Ugo Benelli, Sesto Bruscantini, Paolo Montarsolo, et al.


    Le Veau d’Or (film by Hilary Audus): The ill-fated romance of Faust and Marguerite is depicted in simple, sketchy, dynamic 2D animation against a plain gray backdrop. The lovers are controlled like puppets by the towering, leering Mephistopheles, whose voice is the diabolically sumptuous basso of Nicolai Ghiaurov.


    Noi Siamo Zingarelle (film by Guionne Leroy): This silly little piece of Claymation is the only cartoon not to be based on the plot of the opera its music comes from. Set to the Act II female chorus from La Traviata (taken from Francesco Molinari-Pradelli’s 1954 recording), it depicts the adventures of living blobs of food on a dessert table – a bouncy, colorful crew of puddings, truffles and pastry creams who invade and liven up the stodgy world of a fancy white cake.


    Lakmé: A sensual study in exoticism set to the Flower Duet, as sung by Mady Mesplé and Daniéle Millet. Gérald’s first sight of Lakmé, depicted in live action, gives way to a CGI fantasy sequence in which Lakmé’s hands take on the characteristics of various animals, plants, water and fire – all the dangers and beauty that the Indian jungle offers.


    E Luceavan le Stelle (a film by José Abel): An eerie rendition of Tosca in 2D animation, in which a cadaverous Cavaradossi’s final hours of life are juxtaposed with the murder of a demonic Scarpia, all overseen by a skull-headed angel of death. The aria is sung by Carlo Bergonzi.


    Last but not least, the opening and closing credits are underscored with Alain Vanzo’s lovely rendition of “Je crois entendre encore” from Les Pêcheurs de Perles.


    The segments vary in quality – my favorites are probably the Pagliacci, Madame Butterfly and Cenerentola cartoons, while the weakest, I think, is Carmen. And of course the CGI is slightly crude by today’s standards. But still, I think it’s a great way to enjoy opera – sometimes quirky, sometimes beautiful, but always creative and memorable, and always accompanied by gorgeous music sung by first-class singers. When I was an opera newbie, I watched it again and again, and every now and then I still revisit my old VHS copy. (It doesn’t seem to have been released on DVD, at least not in the US, though most of the segments can be found on Youtube.) I’d recommend it to any opera newbie as part of their introduction to the genre, and even to kids, provided that both they and their parents can handle the occasional violence and the nudity in La Donna é Mobile. And for seasoned opera buffs, it’s a fresh, creative and unforgettable way to enjoy the music we know and adore.



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