Two years after the success of their well-respected Shakespeare : The Animated Tales series, S4C and BBC Bristol attempted to repeat the formula with Operavox. As with those various takes on Julius Caesar, et al, an individual opera is truncated to a running time of approximately 28 minutes and rendered in animated form, the remit being that such an approach should gain the interests of a wider audience not versed in the nuances of the opera form, specifically those of school age. It’s an admirable concept especially as opera rarely makes its way out of the opera house save for the occasional TV broadcast or big screen adaptation (though in the past decade only versions of Madame Butterfly and Tosca have reached British cinemas). That said, the manner in which the makers of this series (many of whom are veterans of Shakespeare : The Animated Tales) have gone about their adaptations is not always a successful one.
Understandably when editing down a full-length opera to a running time that just escapes the 30-minute mark, the full intentions of the original composer are never going to be completely met. And certainly, the versions which make up Operavox - Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Wagner’s The Rhinegold, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Puccini’s Turandot - could never consider themselves to be definitive. As with the various Shakespeare works (and later, The Canterbury Tales) each is cut down to the bare essentials which meant, in the case of the Bard, the major scenes and monologues, and here the major arias and plot developments. The majority of the pieces open with some written exposition detailing the characters and their motivations (The Rhinegold renders its opening as a Star Wars style scroll) and often seem a little too busy for their own good. But then the intentions of each is merely to provoke interest and serve as a primer, and for the opera’s which, personally speaking, I know the least, this function is accomplished extremely well - and, after all, would someone well versed in, say, Carmen choose the version housed here over the numerous other adaptations available?
As each piece cannot be expected to replicate their sources’ intended dramatic weight, it is the quality of the animation which proves more important to their overall successes. Again, as with the previous Shakespeare adaptations, a number of differing styles are employed with each opera being served by a different crew and director. The stylistic choices are largely agreeable and, generally speaking, go well with their respective tales: the claymation of The Barber of Seville works well in relation to its comedic aspects, for example; Carmen’s use of rotoscoping enhances the human drama; the 2D animation of The Magic Flute and The Rhinegold recalls such 80s TV series as Dungeons and Dragons and Thundercats and as such emphasises the underpinning fantastical elements. Indeed, the television connection is important as, of course, Operavox started out as a TV series and therefore brings with it certain, less than favourable qualities. Firstly, it is obvious that the filmmakers have been working to a time limit, meaning that the level of detail in the animation is not perhaps as it could have been. And secondly, the voice cast employed for the speaking parts (the Welsh National Opera provide the main vocal talent without complaint) have the blandness of their kids’ cartoon equivalents in as much as they demonstrate little in the way of true character, have voice that rarely suit their on-screen counterparts and have a tendency to over-enunciate every single word in a manner that proves more than a little patronising.
Thankfully these problems aren't always the norm and Operavox contains at least one standout in the form of Barry J.C. Purves’ take on Rigoletto. Though not a previous employee on the Shakespeare series, Purves had directed Next for Aardman studios, a short film that provided a brief foray through the Bard’s works using model animation (incidentally, this piece appears on the Aardman Classics DVD). It is this style (which he also employed on the superb Screen Play, an interpretation of Japanese theatrical styles which is sadly currently unavailable on disc) which he replicates here in such extraordinary detail that it puts the other directors to shame. Indeed, though 3D, Purves eschews claymation for a more textured, more nuanced approach meaning that though Verdi’s original is a shadow of its former self in terms of content, it is still able to capture a great deal of the drama. Moreover, the adaptation (which, like all of the Operavox shorts, is in English) bypasses the spoken word and sticks firmly to song meaning that the problem of casting is also entirely avoided. As with much of Rigoletto’s style, it’s a break from the Operavox norm which, though not to disparage the other director’s efforts, each of which have their own respective qualities, makes the set a worthwhile purchase on its own merits.
Each of the short films has been presented in its original 4:3 framing and with the original stereo sound. Though by no means unwatchable, or indeed unacceptable, the prints used are showing some signs of age with the occasional grain making itself known and the odd instance of dirt. Otherwise, perfectly acceptable as is the soundtrack which copes ably with both the spoken and sung words. As for extras, these are sadly limited to brief (approximately 100 words) biographies for each of the composers plus a list of their various operas.