Aria - 10 operas + 10 directors = much more than posh music video

Back in the late 1980s, producer Don Boyd came up with the quixotic idea of collaring ten renowned directors and letting them loose on the world of opera, instructing them each to chose a favourite musical segment to illustrate on film. The result was the 1987 movie Aria, now getting its first release on DVD courtesy of Second Sight Films.

Anthology films have gone in and out of fashion (with horror proving the preferred genre for the portmanteau treatment), but Boyd’s concoction is well worth investigating, even if the project does at times resemble a collection of posh music videos.

As you’d expect, the results are variable, with some directors clearly less inspired than others, but there are some real gems to discover.

Jean-Luc Godard finds a typically perverse but curiously apt way of illustrating an aria from Jean Baptiste Lully’s Armide, which tells the story of a sorceress who tries to enchant a Christian knight into falling in love with her. Trust Godard, then, to set this tale in a Parisian gym where a pair of nubile young women strive fruitlessly to arouse the interest of some pumped-up bodybuilders while dusting and polishing the weightlifting equipment in various states of undress.

Aria - Stephanie Lane & Theresa Russell star in Nic Roeg’s short film based on Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera

Nic Roeg uses the real-life assassination attempt upon King Zog of Albania, which took place at the Vienna opera house in 1931, as his setting for a series of extracts from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which is itself an opera inspired by a real assassination, that of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. As if this wasn’t head-spinning enough already, Zog (yes, he did exist) is played in male dress and moustache by Roeg’s then wife, Theresa Russell.

Ken Russell, no stranger to putting classical music to unorthodox use on screen, picks 'Nessun dorma' from Puccini’s Turandot (before it became a World Cup anthem). His episode shows a woman (former glamour model Linzi Drew) being adorned with jewels by attendants in a seemingly Pharaonic ritual, only for it to be finally revealed that she is actually a car-crash victim in the operating theatre.

Other extracts feature some now-famous actors at very early stages of their careers. It’s not that remarkable to find Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s rendering of ‘Depuis le jour’ from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise (she was already well established as Jarman’s muse by then), but it is a surprise to see a very young, almost unrecognisible Elizabeth Hurley, pre-safety-pin dress celebrity, in Bruce Beresford’s soft-core rendering of a number from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

Aria - Bridget Fonda & James Mathers play doomed lovers in Franc Roddam’s short film set to Wagner’s Liebestod

Then there’s Bridget Fonda, who actually made her film debut as one of a pair of doomed lovers cruising towards a suicide-pact in Las Vegas in Franc Roddam’s unexpectedly moving updating of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

The most successful episode, though, is Julien Temple’s cheerfully vulgar interpretation of ‘La donna è mobile’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto, which stars Buck Henry and Anita Morris as a married couple independently arriving at the same hotel, Calfornia’s celebrated Madonna Inn, for assignations with their lovers. As Temple’s gliding steadicam moves in and out of rooms, the spouses are continually on the verge of meeting, but never quite do, with the comic imbroglio building to a flamboyant climax in which an Elvis impersonator lip-synchs to Verdi’s famous tenor showstopper.

Released on 15th June.

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.