“A Life in 4 Seasons,” a multimedia event paired with Vivaldi’s famed set of four violin concertos, was meant by Fresno Grand Opera’s Thi Nguyen and filmmaker Cooper Sy Blumenthal to go beyond the traditional associations that most listeners have with the music. In other words: no gorgeous images of nature depicting the changing of the seasons.
Instead, the audience for the premiere Saturday night at the Shaghoian Hall was confronted with a specific visual narrative following a couple from youthful marriage to old age. In this way, Nguyen and Blumenthal hoped to embrace both the lighter and heavier textures of Vivaldi’s score, which is infused with a great deal of urgency and plaintiveness. A life cannot always consist of those heady, first-bud days of early spring, alas.
Reinterpreting “The Four Seasons” in such a striking new way is an intriguing idea, especially considering that the composer based his music on a series of anonymous sonnets that themselves offer a strong narrative flair. I admire Nguyen’s desire to craft an innovative interpretation rather than simply offer yet one more concert featuring the famous score.
But the overall project is a complete disappointment. Not only does the film fail to build upon and expand the emotional range of the music, it actually fights against Vivaldi’s work itself. By the end, I was tempted to ditch the film — which was projected behind the musicians as Nguyen, the violin soloist, and the small Fresno Chamber Orchestra played — and just listen to the stirring performance.
One big problem is the amateur quality of the filmmaking. (I’m not even sure I’d call it a film; it’s more like an overstuffed Power Point presentation.) Text and graphics play a large role in the presentation, but the film’s general visual aesthetic reads like something that was made six or seven years ago using a now prehistoric version of Microsoft Movie Maker. Text swirls and dissolves in disjointed ways. The typography is a mess. The narration scrolls by in various widths and speeds. Archival footage often is used in conjunction with cheesy borders and unsophisticated graphics that look like they come from early generation video games.
More important, however, is the failure of the convoluted narrative. The film’s strongest thread is that of a hard-working man whose innovations, starting in World War II and continuing through Vietnam, lead him to great success and later disappointments in the field of war. But in its limited running time, the film tries to cram in too much else. We’re treated to seemingly endless archival World War II footage and even more endless celebrating when the war is over. Though this is supposed to be the story of a couple, the relationship between the grandfather and grandmother remains superficial. We see photographs and a few domestic scenes, but every bit of it seems stubbornly generic. We get sidetracked by a present-day story, presumably, of the narrator grandson and his own marital woes, and on top of that, we start seeing “letters” addressed to Thi, who is (presumably again) the one playing solo violin, scroll by.
Blumenthal, a Cal State Long Beach film professor, provides some original footage — precious little — of actors sighing and looking plaintive in a pretentious, novice-film-student way. Again, another distraction. For all those titles flying by, the film doesn’t make sense of its own timeline, making it hard to tell what is a flashback and what is in present day. Part conventional narrative and part abstract filmmaking exercise, the result is a mush.
The final blow comes when you realize the “deeper” meaning the film is trying (I think!) to get across: a vague anti-war, anti-military-industrial-complex sentiment. Here’s the problem: That theme has been developed in far more articulate and powerful films. This one just seems trite.
Nguyen said in an interview prior to the performance that he enjoys crafting a “screenplay” for each work he performs that helps him better express his feelings and create a concrete impression of the music. In this case, the screenplay certainly works for him, because the music was stellar. To watch and listen to Nguyen’s expertise and passion was a revelation (and the orchestra was tight and wonderful as well). What didn’t work was sharing that screenplay with the audience.