There are moments when the very idea of live entertainment including its high cultural expression, thrills the soul. On 6 May, Opera Australia presented in Melbourne Verdi’s Aida, that opera where the spectacular reaches the point of grandeur and the casting of Leah Crocetto in the title role was a deliberate attempt to find a singer with a voice that could outsoar the visual splendours that were illustrating Verdi’s music. Then on 18 May Melbourne Opera is presenting Verdi’s Macbeth directed by Bruce Beresford and anyone who knows the film director of Driving Miss Daisy knows that in the vicinity of opera, whether it’s in a modernist masterpiece of savagery like Richard Strauss’ Elektra or André Previn’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, his productions of opera represent the realisation of a parallel destiny.
We forget sometimes what a powerful popular art opera was in the nineteenth century and how much it did in Verdi’s hands to follow in the wake of both Shakespeare and his great German imitator Schiller. It’s not for nothing that Don Carlos – brilliantly directed for Opera Australia only a few years ago by Elijah Moshinsky – should be musically close to Aida and be such an empathic musicalisation of poetic drama. Nor that Verdi should have done such a vivid sketch of Macbeth early on and that he could do the marvellous understatement of Falstaff which is superior to The Merry Wives of Windsor from which it derives.
All of which is a far cry from television even though Mare of Easttown with its scarifying portrait of a normal community at the edge of every engulfing pit is looking like the most formidable thing since Denmark’s The Killing in its first season in presenting the interplay of suffering human faces where the human drama is equal or greater than the engrossing suspense and mystery.
It is not, alas, always so. Thirty-five-odd years ago the movie of The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford as the father/husband and Helen Mirren as the wife/ mother and that sublime young actor River Phoenix as the son was a powerful dramatisation of Paul Theroux’s dark reconfiguring of a Swiss Family Robinson scenario. Apple TV’s brand-new version shows few signs of the same sparkle and savour. It doesn’t help that despite Melissa George and the very engaging Gabriel Bateman Justin Theroux is completely charmless as the pater familias.
Nor did we get much further with Little Fires Everywhere which presents that dynamo of histrionic ambition Reese Witherspoon with characteristic boundless zest. Reese Witherspoon was great in Big Little Lies, from the novel of Australia’s Liane Moriarty, which had Nicole Kidman at the height of her powers. Witherspoon is not only the original ditzy siren of Legally Blonde, she also played Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair with a perfect English accent. She’s liable to be doing Mother Courage: The Musical when she’s 70 but Little Fires Everywhere is just too tame.
A few years ago Witherspoon acquired the rights to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl but ended up not playing the very tricky heroine herself. Sharp Objects with Amy Adams, the best of this trio of disappointments, is based on Flynn’s first novel and is put together by the team that did Big Little Lies.
Adams has had a rough time of it. She hits the bottle and has had a habit of hurting herself when she returns to the dark locales of her Southern childhood to report on the disappearances and possible deaths of some young girls. Her mother played with daunting ghastliness by the formidable Patricia Clarkson would drive anyone to stick pins in themselves and drink the minibar dry. Amy Adams is soulful, tentative and authentic at every point. But the look of the show is all muddied chiaroscuro and you tend to feel constantly like the victim of a cumbersome plot. It’s as if a dutiful and talented team – Patricia Clarkson won a Best Supporting Golden Globe – have been fly-papered by a rather pretentious thriller story that is less dramatic than its author imagines. It will be interesting to see if Amy Adams has more success with the neo-Hithcockian The Woman at the Window which Netflix is showing from 14 May.
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