Tony Palmer’s Film about Puccini. Written by Charles Wood. Starring Robert Stephens, Virginia McKenna, Judith Howarth and Robert Urquhart. Tony Palmer Films. $24.99 (DVD).
Tony Palmer’s Film of God Rot Tunbridge Wells. Written by John Osborne. Starring Trevor Howard, Dave Griffiths, Christopher Bramwell and Peter Stanger. Tony Palmer Films. $24.99 (DVD).
As producer of films about Chopin and Sir Yehudi Menuhin, and director of ones about Britten, Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Renée Fleming and others, Tony Palmer has carved himself a niche in the visual exploration of classical music. Now his 1984 film on Puccini and 1985 exploration of Handel, both made for British TV, are available on DVD – and they are very much niche products. Palmer’s strength is in his belief in himself and his viewpoints. If you accept his ideas, you will become quickly involved in his films and find them enthralling. If you do not see eye-to-eye with him, though, watching his movies can be something between a chore and an irritation.
This is particularly true in Palmer’s film about Puccini, whose focus is not the composer’s operatic career but the tragic story of the family’s maid, Doria Manfredi, who was wrongly accused by Puccini’s jealous wife of having an affair with the composer, a notorious womanizer. Distraught, Manfredi committed suicide – and Puccini’s wife, Elvira, was later convicted of public defamation in the case and sentenced to more than five years in prison. Palmer interweaves this story with preparations for a production of Turandot that Palmer himself designed for the Scottish National Opera. This is self-aggrandizement as much as anything: the production was roundly condemned and reflected far more on Palmer than on Puccini. In fact, Palmer goes so far as to suggest that Turandot may have been left incomplete – Puccini stopped writing it after the death of Liu – because Puccini was so emotionally torn by what happened to Dora Manfredi. This creates a variety of factual problems – for example, it would mean the composer stopped composing years earlier than is generally believed to be the case – but it certainly makes for good theater, and that is what Palmer is after. Unfortunately, the film itself is rather sloppily shot, especially in the scenes of preparations for the Turandot production; and in fact, only dedicated opera lovers will likely want as much of a backstage view as Palmer provides. The actual performance of parts of the opera, by the Scottish Opera Chorus and Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson, is very good, but there is not much of it, and it is not Palmer’s main point in the film. In fact, his main point is a bit hard to come by – the film gives the impression of being several short movies cut together, sometimes rather haphazardly, all with a focus on something having to do with Puccini.
God Rot Tunbridge Wells is argumentative in a different way. Screenwriter John Osborne, a well-known playwright, commemorated the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth with a film whose title comes from a letter that Osborne says Handel wrote to the Tunbridge Wells Ladies’ Music Circle after they put on a particularly hideous performance of Messiah. Did it happen? It scarcely matters to Osborne and Palmer, who are more interested in the way Handel shook up British music in the 18th century and created a set of entirely new traditions. That did happen, but it is something of a scholarly matter and not well suited to film visualization. So Palmer and Osborne focus on the Tunbridge Wells matter as a kind of microcosm of bad music-making. The good news is that, in the process, they offer some very good music-making – from the English Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, and a number of fine singers. Palmer does not inject himself as much into this film as into Puccini, where he uses his own Turandot production so prominently; God Rot Tunbridge Wells is as much Osborne’s vision as Palmer’s. If neither of the films is definitive – and neither is – both have interesting, if seriously skewed, points of view, and are likely to be enjoyable to the extent that viewers and listeners find the viewpoints congenial rather than maddening.