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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘MUSIC TEACHER’: A ‘ROCKY’ CONTEST OVER THE NEXT GREAT TENOR

Jose Van Dam, who plays a tragic baritone in the Belgian movie “The Music Teacher” (at the Westside Pavilion and Port Theatre, Corona del Mar) has a face full of magnetic pain, sad eyes brooding over an imperious chin. And the movie, directed by Gerard Corbiau, surrounds him with period decor so chill and lovely it looks as if the frames would shatter if you touched them.

“The Music Teacher” was designed as a vehicle for Van Dam, Belgium’s finest opera singer, and Corbiau gives his star a lustrous backdrop. It’s full of spacious country chateaus, lakes at sunset and shiny floors on which every footstep makes a great, echoing, metallic click. In the midst of this pre-World War I splendor, Van Dam’s Joachim Dallayrac--suffering saint, unspoken lover and musical martinet--languishes stoically. Occasionally, he breaks into poignant song, generally Mahler’s mournful “Ruckert Lieder.”

But if it’s a sumptuous-looking display, it’s also a shallow one: a gleaming Cognac glace laid over steaming cornball kitsch. Wonderful as it looks and as Van Dam sounds, it’s a campy pastiche of a story, the sort of thing that might have been imagined by someone listening to Deutsche Grammophon lieder records while staring rapturously at the album covers.

People are introduced as “the greatest baritone of the age” (Dallayrac), “the would-be greatest tenor and soprano"--Dallayrac’s proteges Sophie (Anne Roussel) and Jean (Philippe Volter)--and the plot revolves around a contest to determine the next great tenor. It’s almost a classical music “Rocky.”

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There are also scraps of soap opera: touches of terminal disease and unspoken love, an ambiance of the chic and excruciating. When people die, their teacups shatter on the floor, and veil-like white window curtains whip picturesquely inward. If the name of the villain, Dallayrac’s arch-nemesis Prince Scotti, suggests a classy old vampire, that’s exactly how Patrick Bauchau plays him. His Scotti reeks of elegantly perverted menace and malice and he has a smirking protege for the greatest-tenor title, Arcas (Marc Schreiber), who looks a bit like a Hitlerjugend cast by Luchino Visconti.

Scotti himself was once up for greatest-baritone-of-his age laurels, which he lost when his voice cracked in mano-a-mano competition with Dallayrac. Now he has to content himself with being the age’s greatest musical impresario, patron of the age’s greatest recital, where reputations are made or broken instantly. There, history may repeat. On the schedule: a dueling-tenors battle between Jean and Arcas, staged in matching white masks and “Amadeus” tricorns.

Where have all these unrivaled voices come from? Sophie happens to be the niece of Joachim’s best friend, Francois (Johan Leysen); Jean is a petty thief whom he spots picking pockets at the city square. What sheer operatic density! Jean’s sturdy tenor happens to be exactly the same voice possessed by Scotti’s sour little protege, Arcas. It’s even dubbed by the same singer, Jerome Pruett. Amazements never cease.

Corbiau deserves every credit for the splendiferous look of the film, done on a modest budget, and for building it around Van Dam--as promising an actor as he is superb a baritone. The Leporello of Joseph Losey’s 1978 film “Don Giovanni,” Van Dam, along with cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende and production designer Zouc Lanc, brings elegance and taste to a movie hovering constantly on the edge of the cloying and silly.

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But how much better would it have been if Corbiau had forgotten all these Verdi vendettas? If he had simply focused on the poignant relationship between Dallayrac and Sophie? On the last autumn of a virtuoso, desire repressed into song? We’ll never know. Mahler and repressed passion may be more evocative, but dueling tenors are undoubtedly a sexier sell.

‘THE MUSIC TEACHER’ An Orion Classics release of a Radio-Television Belge/K2-One co-production. Director Gerard Corbiau. Script Corbiau, Patrick Iratni, Jacqueline Pierreux, Andree Corbiau, Christian Watton. Camera Walther Vanden Ende. Editor Denise Vindevogel. Production design Zouc Lanc. Associate producer Dominique Janne. Executive Producer Jacqueline Pierreux. With Jose Van Dam, Anne Roussel, Philippe Volter, Sylvie Fennec, Patrick Bauchau, Johan Leysen, Marc Schreiber.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).

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