When I heard that Toronto Operetta Theatre will be staging Perchance to Dream, an Ivor Novello operetta, I was reminded of Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park. I dug up the film again last night, delighting in its subtle intimations and implications.
Do you remember this film? It’s not quite Altman’s last film. That would be Prairie Home Companion, from 2006, the same year he passed away. I’d be hard pressed to identify my favourite Altman film: because I like so many of them. Everyone knows MASH. Have you seen McCabe & Mrs Miller, with its remarkable use of Leonard Cohen’s music? a hauntingly original film. Nashville is pretty amazing too. And then there’s the bizarre world of Popeye. There’s his stunningly original segment in the anthology Aria¸ employing Rameau, bringing madness & opera into vibrant contact. And there are three amazing films from the 1990s, namely Vincent & Theo, The Player and Ready to Wear. There are many more I could mention. Right now, though I have to think Gosford Park is my favourite, because of what I saw last night.
I was once again hypnotized, totally sucked into the film within a few minutes and hooked for the night. It’s the 1930s, when we get to see an upper class English household through the eyes of their servants. Among the house-guests are some tourists who work in film. There’s an actor researching what it is to be a servant, an impersonation that infuriates one of the real servants (played by Richard E Grant, who we saw on the Oscars a couple of days ago), who spills a coffee deliberately onto a very delicate place of his anatomy. There’s Weismann, fictitious producer of the Charlie Chan mystery series, a charming little Jewish-American. But in the midst of the fiction there’s Ivor Novello, a historical figure. We meet the singer, song-writer and famous personality as portrayed by Jeremy Northam.
At dinner we hear a bit about the plan to film a murder mystery. After dinner, Novello sings songs at the piano, entertaining the guests as well as the servants furtively listening.
His songs make for a gently romantic soundtrack, a dreamy style with more than a bit of crooning from Northam even as we discover more about the family & the master of the house, envied or hated by almost everyone present. And then in the midst of one of the songs we see his murder enacted, and the tone of the film shifts only slightly. At one point Weisman jokingly remarks about how much freedom servants have, that the butler really could do it, at least in a film. But these police don’t take the servants seriously as possible suspects, which is a good thing. Because if we want the perpetrators to get away with it, we can’t have competent police investigating the murder, now can we? Sometimes incompetence is useful.
When I looked for a score to an Ivor Novello operetta in the music library I came up empty. Although at one time Novello was a big star, composer of some of the most popular tunes, he’s beneath the radar at the Edward Johnson Building (at least for a complete score) although I think they must have a song or two in an anthology somewhere.
All the more reason for me to want to go see & hear Perchance to Dream this Sunday. He is arguably an important figure, now obscure after great fame in the first half of the 20th century.
Here’s Novello’s most famous song, written at the beginning of WW I, namely “Keep the home fires burning”.