Spy vs. Spy on An Operatic Scale

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

James Bond has long been the king of high-tech gadgets. So it is only fitting he should have the most high-tech opera.

"Quantum of Solace" includes a pivotal scene set at the Seebühne, or lakefront stage, of the summer opera festival in Bregenz, Austria, where the Bond action is interwoven with two scenes from Puccini's "Tosca."

Opera in big-budget cinema usually plays the fairly limited role of a signifier of tradition, romance and wealth (see "Moonstruck"). "Quantum of Solace," by contrast, shows it as a futuristic (and slightly sinister) showplace for the jet set: first, with the sleek white surfaces of the Seebühne's backstage and public areas; and second, with a contemporary production of the sort that unsympathetic observers call "Eurotrash."

In the film, it's hard to tell that the Bregenz stage is built out over the surface of Lake Constance, so that the 7,000 spectators whom Bond (Daniel Craig) scans from a backstage perch are facing a panorama of Alps, water and the enormous blue eye that is the centerpiece of Johannes Leiacker's set. The festival tends to put a huge premium on eye-catching stage design, and Leiacker's, which debuted in the summer of 2007 (each production at Bregenz runs for two consecutive summers), seems to have been a particular success: after the Bond movie was filmed this past spring -- not, incidentally, during an actual performance -- the set hosted German national television's coverage of the European soccer championship.

The watching eye is a fine metaphor for the police-state atmosphere of "Tosca" as well as for the ubiquitous, ill-defined enemy in "Quantum of Solace." But the use of music also shows the sophistication of this new Craig-era incarnation of the Bond franchise; it effectively supports the drama, albeit in ways that only an opera lover will pick up. It is not giving much away to say that in the film, the scene in the opera house centers on a bad-guy plot. The background music to this is the most evil moment in the opera: Baron Scarpia, one of the baddest bad guys in the repertory, sings -- during a church service, no less -- that his physical desire for Tosca has made him forget even God. To underline the sinister overtones, this production (originally the work of the German stage director Philipp Himmelmann) has the pupil of the eye open at this point, and also shows Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover, being led away in chains, a political prisoner.

Marc Forster, the film's director, delivers visual information only in the tiniest of dollops, so it is hard to parse what's actually happening onstage. Musically, though, it's clearer: After the "Te Deum" (sung by the young baritone Sébastien Soules, a member of the ensemble in Innsbruck who played the much smaller role of Angelotti in the actual production), it jumps ahead to the purely instrumental section played after Tosca has stabbed Scarpia.

In short, we get a mini-allegory of the heyday and fall of a tyrant, in the best tradition of a play-within-a-play, while the music furthers what is going on in the film's action. Pretty impressive -- and for this opera lover, the best scene in the movie.

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