Aria DVD review

Classic opera meets modern film-making sensibilities in an emotional and erotic love-letter to the classic arias…

Linzi Drew deciding between life and death to 'Nessun Dorma' in Ken Russell's section of Aria.

In the mid-1980s producer Don Boyd brought together ten of the world’s most prominent and respected directors to each interpret a classic opera aria. Each director had £50,000 and absolute free reign to follow their instincts. It’s the kind of film-land fantasy that rarely makes it off napkin notes in restaurants. But Boyd pulled it off, and over the course of the ensuing three years assembled an extraordinary collection of unique perspectives on opera and music, forging in the process a bridge between the high-artistic realms of opera and the mainstream of popular culture.

Aria presents ten tales, which range from the narrative to the lyrical, all accompanying extraordinary operatic renditions.

Nick Roeg’s typically entry finds his then-wife Theresa Russell gender-bending as ‘King Zog’, a 1920s Eastern European monarch who decided to fight back against his potential assassins; Charles Sturridge provides a contemporary urban tale for Verdi’s ‘La Vergine Degli Angeli’; Jean Luc Godard envisions Lully’s ‘Armide’ to the sweaty environs of a Paris gym; Julien Temple’s ‘Rigoletto’ finds Buck Henry and Beverly D’Angelo in for some surprises in a night of infidelity at a glitzy motel; Bruce Beresford gives a more classical feel to his period-set ‘Die Tote Stadt’, featuring an almost unrecognisable Elizabeth Hurley; Robert Altman focuses on a period Paris opera audience in his interpretation of Rameau’s “Les Boreades”; Bridget Fonda is one of two suicidal young lovers ending their days in Vegas in Franc Roddam’s extraordinarily moving “Liebestod”; musical-bio whiz Ken Russell provides an equally moving and erotic look at “Nessun Dorma”, wherein 1980s glamour model and actress Linzi Drew (An American Werewolf in London), find herself hovering between life and death in a car wreck; and the late Derek Jarman single-handedly invents the (later) overused technique of confetti/tickertape!

Aria‘s portmanteau is bound together by Bill Bryden’s look at the death of an opera singer (John Hurt) as his muse (Sophie Ward) presides over his last hours on Earth, and this segment closes the movie…

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I arrive at the movie as exactly the kind of opera-pleb that Boyd was hoping to win over; the ‘opera fan’ that will post a question on Yahoo! Answers such as ‘What’s that opera music in the love-scene in The Hunger?’. I know the ‘exciting bit’ in Verdi’s Requiem, the haunting music that both Tony Scott (The Hunger) and British Airways appropriated in the 1980s, and one or two other classic pieces that the modern media-carousel has popularised.

And in all honesty, I probably will not have time to pursue the beautiful compositions that Aria re-presents as vital and contemporary – but that’s hardly the movie’s fault. Aria is a crystalline and mesmerising marriage of music and vision and truly eclectic; the locations range from period-Vienna to pre-Disney Vegas, from rich colours to Jarman’s grainy super-8 footage, from the comic to the tragic. The intention to underline that opera is a living art-form is admirably achieved in the movie, and if some of the conceits fall flat (I’m still not sure about Russell as a moustached king!), none have time to wear out their welcome.

There’s a lot of sex in Aria – almost every section is burning with passion, and not just of the abstract, musical kind. Ken Russell’s “Nessun Dorma” lays out it’s intention early on in the casting of the very endomorphic Drew, whilst Fonda, Hurley and many of the other actors and actresses are laid bare. Whether this is what you get when you provide an open-remit to ten male directors or whether this sea of flesh fully expresses the carnality of opera’s most-beloved themes, only you can decide.

But if the movie draws you in with the obvious, it snares you with true substance and emotional impact. Aria is the kind of film that Britain couldn’t turn out again in the age of demographics and focus-grouped scripts and pitches – and that’s a hell of a shame.

ExtrasComposing Aria All the stops have been pulled out for this 45-minute retrospective documentary, which features practically every surviving director who contributed to Aria, and the background tales to their segments.

Audio Commentary with Don Boyd Directors and producers who approach commentaries with disdain in the spirit of ‘necessary publicity duties’ should be made to listen to this commentary as a template for the depth of background and good will that defines a really enjoyable commentary.

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Stills Gallery A truly extraordinary and abundant collection of images for each segment of Aria.


5 stars
5 stars

Aria special edition is out now.


3 out of 5