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First Night

Opera lovers, a potentially large demographic, are targeted by "First Night," a frothy English country-house romp that throws in hefty portions of Mozart.

With: Richard E. Grant, Sarah Brightman, Mia Maestro, Julian Ovenden, Oliver Dimsdale, Susannah Fielding, Nigel Lindsay, Tessa Peake-Jones, Laura Power, Hugh Ross, Stanley Townsend, Jack Walker, Emma Williams.

Opera lovers, a potentially large demographic, are targeted by “First Night,” a frothy English country-house romp that throws in hefty portions of Mozart. As a cast and crew gather to rehearse “Cosi fan tutte” at the palatial retreat of a rich industrialist, the ensuing romantic mischief creakily echoes the opera’s own plot. Neither fish nor fowl, this eccentric item looks likely to turn off moviegoers resistant to the upscale art form while failing to satisfy opera’s true devotees. Its probable fate is an early curtain call in cinemas before taking a few bows in ancillary.

Sir Adam Drummond (Richard E. Grant) harbors an unlikely ambition: to perform the Don Alfonso role in Mozart’s famous comic opera. To indulge this whim, he assembles a whole company at his home, where the professional production will be staged in front of an invited audience.

Adam bets cocky singer Tom (Julian Ovenden) that Tom won’t manage to bed Italian soprano Nicoletta (Mia Maestro) before first night. Despite the best efforts of disapproving conductor Celia (Sarah Brightman) to sabotage Tom’s chances, true love flourishes before the inevitable exposure of the wager spins things in a different direction. Effortful shenanigans involve a woodland tryst, a misplaced cell phone, a case of vintage brandy and a dog called Baskerville.

Veteran TV helmer Christopher Menaul (who directed the 2002 miniseries “The Forsyte Saga”) and co-writer Jeremy Sams (legit hit “Chitty the Musical”) throw in a subplot involving the housekeeper’s son (Jack Walker) having his horizons broadened by the colorful visitors, and another in which the opera’s director (Oliver Dimsdale) realizes he truly desires one of his leading men (Nigel Lindsay), not the leading lady (Emma Williams) with whom he shares a bed.

Given the pic’s mustiness, lines like, “The critics are coming … they’ll murder us,” seem to be recklessly tempting fate. On the plus side, the operatic singing, supplied by trained professionals, is artfully lip-synched, but for the uninitiated, there’s truly a startling amount of octave-straddling yelping. Lavish production coin has been expended on lensing in Milan, Shepperton Studios and Scotland’s pretty Manderson House; the result is an appropriately photogenic guilty pleasure for location-porn aficionados.

It’s a pity that a similar ambition was not applied to the cast, as many of the actors give performances in line with their low profile here. At least toplined Brightman, albeit a stilted screen presence, may entice some of the auds that recently flocked to a special 25th anniversary celebration of “The Phantom of the Opera,” beamed digitally to 250 packed cinemas in Blighty.

Pic represents a return to full producing for Stephen Evans, whose credits include “The Wings of the Dove,” two Kenneth Branagh-helmed Shakespeares and “The Madness of King George.”

Popular on Variety

First Night


Production: A Britannia Films release of a Renaissance Films presentation of a Cosi production. (International sales: SC Films Intl., London.) Produced by Stephen Evans, Selwyn Roberts, John Spiers. Executive producers, Stuart Stradling, Simon Crowe, Rodney Payne. Co-producers, Jonathan Evans, Alan Latham, Romilly Evans. Directed by Christopher Menaul. Screenplay, Menaul, Jeremy Sams, from an idea by Stephen Evans, John Mortimer.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color) Tim Palmer; editor, St. John O'Rorke; music, Wolfgang Mozart, adapted by James Morgan, Juliette Pochin; music supervisor, Morgan; production designer, Stuart Walker; art director, Diane Dancklefsen; set decorator, Neesh Ruben; costume designer, Phoebe De Gaye; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Colin Chapman; supervising sound editor, Chapman; re-recording mixers, Graham Daniel, Adam Daniel; choreography, Kathleen Mackie; visual effects supervisor, Simon Kilroe; assistant director, Sean Guest; second unit director, Selwyn Roberts; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed on DVD, London, Oct. 14, 2011. Running time: 116 MIN.

Cast: With: Richard E. Grant, Sarah Brightman, Mia Maestro, Julian Ovenden, Oliver Dimsdale, Susannah Fielding, Nigel Lindsay, Tessa Peake-Jones, Laura Power, Hugh Ross, Stanley Townsend, Jack Walker, Emma Williams.

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