As a sort of primer for people who think they don’t like opera First Night works quite well.
Ah, the English upper classes falling in and out of love in a lovely country setting. Isn’t this what British film is all about? The legacy of Merchant Ivory commoditised and reheated to satiate a certain foreign demographic. Not really, but First Night has a darn good stab at it all the same.
There’s a certain audience that takes delight in stories about the romantic quandaries of upper-class English folk, and First Night certainly knows its crowd.
Rich impresario Adam (Richard E Grant) decides he wants to put on his own opera – a production of Mozart’s 'Cosi Fan Tutte' – with himself in one of the lead roles, in order to impress an old flame (Sarah Brightman). So he recruits a homogeneous (not one non-white face among them) number of up and coming opera singers and old hands, all desperate for recognition, to rehearse and ultimately perform at his sizable country estate.
Needless to say, life imitates art, in this case the cosi in question and various standard romantic comedy standards are played out. The most central (and most familiar) of these is The Cad (Julian Ovenden as Tom) wagering he can ‘have’ the leading lady before first night and subsequently falling in love with her. The other characters fall in and out of love in due course, keeping the film skipping along at a pleasing pace before a predictable yet perfunctory happy ending is delivered.
With such a straightforward plot First Night relies heavily on performances (as in the opera being performed) to bring it to life and the cast is a good mix of 'safe hands' and new talent. Richard E Grant, glides through with his usual charm, never really being stretched beyond simple comedy routines, which he can now do in his sleep. Nigel Lindsay and Tessa Peake-Jones (aka Raquel in Only Fools and Horses) are also solid anchors for the rest of the film’s various amorous adventures, and do their best to mask a lacklustre central love story.
As with all movie romances, it’s all about chemistry and when it’s just not there, well, there’s nothing that can be done. Julian Ovenden – in leather jacket and jeans so you know he’s cool – throws himself head first into the role of headstrong romantic lead, with an admirable energy and vigour but never really connects with Mía Maestro as Nicoletta, who takes playing hard-to-get into probably-not-worth-the-effort territory.
In fact, the most love in First Night is shown to the location – Manderston House in Scotland – and the opera itself. Long establishing scenes silently exploring the grounds and different rooms in the house, each more elegant than the last, play-out over pretty proficient renditions of Cosi Fan Tutte's songs. These are performed by the cast to a better than you might expect standard, and this is perhaps where First Night succeeds most.
As a sort of primer for people who think they don’t like opera First Night works quite well. The costumes, singing and exuberance given to the opera scenes give the cosi life (the elusive sizzle that Grant is constantly searching for) but there’s little to similarly elevate the romantic comedy side of the film, which at the end, leaves First Night on a bum note.
Bring out the fat lady and let’s be done with this.
Opera looks like fun. Hooking up in the countryside, less so.
Would have benefited from more opera, incredibly.