One of the more unusual DVDs I own in my collection is this DVD (which is now unavailable in Australia). There’s not a lot of background information available on the internet about this TV show, and there’s no extras on this disc, so all I can work out is that it was made for BBC TV in about 1993 or so and has six episodes.
The idea was pretty straightforward. Take an opera, cut it down to half an hour long and then create an animated cartoon version of it. Most of the singers and the orchestra (most of them Welsh) are unknowns. The only singer whose name I recognised was Jane Eaglen, who sang Turandot – however, her English diction was so terrible, that I could barely make out anything she sang – so I’d actually give more credit to the unknown singers than to her on this.
Every one of the six operas (The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Carmen, Das Rheingold, Turandot and Rigoletto) was handed over to a different group of animators, so the styles are widely different. In fact, for the most part, the different episodes succeed or fall based on the animation.
Here’s my thoughts on the different episodes:
The Magic Flute – This is a bit of a silly opera to start with, but the animation style they chose was a hand-drawn style very reminiscent of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (for those who can remember that far back). It’s fun, but all the characters look weird, so it doesn’t quite make for a magical experience.
Carmen – This was rotoscoped, i.e. it was performed by real actors, and then the scenes were painted over to make it all animated. Because of that, you’re quite aware that you’re watching real people. Some of it works quite well, but it’s not quite as otherworldly as some of the other episodes (but then again, the Carmen story isn’t quite as otherworldly either).
Rhinegold was based on the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Being a short opera (by Ring standards – only 2 1/2 hours normally), it worked okay being cut down to 1/2 an hour. This one is hand-drawn. Some of the ideas worked really well and certainly Wagner’s fantastic music is perfect for an animated fantasy film – but other parts of it were just bizarre. What’s with Freia wearing a string bikini? What crazy animator came up with that?
Turandot – I’m not really entirely sure what this opera was about because of Jane Eaglen’s diction (mentioned earlier) and the fact that there were no subtitles, so it was difficult to work out what anyone was singing about. However, the hand-drawn animation (done in the style of Chinese silk screen paintings) was quite effective, and the ancient Chinese setting comes to life really well.
The Barber of Seville – The only comedy opera in the whole lot is a lot of fun and it’s in the stop-motion animation style we all used to watch in the 80s. Starting with a bunch of liveried servants who wander around adjusting the “sets” throughout the opera, the animators managed to capture all the craziness of the opera, plus throw in all the good arias, to make for half an hour of fun animation. I quite like this one.
Rigoletto – Another stop-motion animation and, without doubt, the strongest of the lot of them. Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi, is a strange opera. It has, without doubt, some of the catchiest of all Italian opera music (remember the “Leggo’s Authentical” ad?) and if you heard the music and knew nothing of the story, you could be forgiven for thinking this story is rather light and fluffy.
But it’s not. Rigoletto is dark as dark can be, and the animators went to town on it – the story is about a jester, Rigoletto, whose master, the Duke of Mantua seduces many young women. Rigoletto gets a great laugh from making fun of the anguished fathers whose daughters have been ruined – until the Duke makes a move on Rigoletto’s own daughter – thus unleashing a chain of events that have disastrous and bloody consequences. Everything, from the ugly hunchback jester to the rotting, creaking sets are amazing to behold. It won’t make your day happy, but it’s a spectacular example of what can happen when you combine classical music with animation.
So, yeah, an interesting experiment – not on the level of Disney’s Fantasia, but certainly worth a look.