In these weird post-truth times, when things ain’t what they used to be, and many words no longer mean what they used to mean, there’s no better way to recalibrate one’s bearings than by watching the third season of “Mozart in the Jungle.” The series, nominated for best TV series, musical or comedy at the upcoming Golden Globe Awards, is based on oboist Blair Tindall’s best-selling 2005 memoir of the same name, whose subtitle is “Sex, Drugs and Classical Music.” (Its 10 episodes have been streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S. since Dec. 9, and on Cellcom TV in Israel since Dec. 20. The first two seasons can be viewed in Israel both on Cellcom TV and HOT VOD.)
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The moderately paced series – beautifully shot in many locations – deals with behind-the-scene lives and loves of classical musicians; it’s not a misnomer to label it a soap opera. That veteran TV genre has nothing to do with either soap or opera. Soap opera is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A radio or television serial dealing esp. with domestic situations and frequently characterized by melodrama and sentimentality.” The term dates back to the late 1930s, when someone explained that he called such shows by this name “because it is by the grace of soap [Proctor & Gamble and Lever Brothers were among the firms that sponsored them], I am allowed to shed tears for these characters who suffer so much from life [emotional overflow is also associated with many operatic plots].”
In the case of “Mozart in the Jungle,” the label “soap opera” seems to fit, as emotions do reign supreme (through classical music, of course, but don’t forget the sex and drugs in the subtitle). In the third season, Mexican actor and director Gael Garcia Bernal – who plays the maverick star conductor Rodrigo De Souza (based on the Venezuelan real-life maverick star conductor Gustavo Dudamel) – goes on a quest to orchestrate the comeback of an elusive and reclusive opera diva, “La Fiamma,” Alessandra by name. This character is roughly based on Maria Callas and played by the Italian actress Monica Bellucci. Her voice is dubbed by the opera singer Ana Maria Martinez.
The series, which premiered in December 2014, is about a fictional symphony orchestra in New York that’s in a transition period between the autocratic reign of one conductor, Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell), who although retired is still very much around and the first days of the new conductor, De Souza. To say the new guy is unorthodox would be one hell of an understatement. There are also many high-strung characters and a lot of classical music – the kind that is supposedly appreciated by some sort of highfalutin elite.
At the beginning of the third season, the orchestra is on strike; contractual negotiations between the CEO (played by the one and only Bernadette Peters) and the representative of the musicians union are at an impasse. De Souza has no orchestra to conduct, so off to Venice he goes in pursuit of Alessandra. Hailey (Lola Kirke), the aspiring young oboist is meanwhile touring the world with a cellist friend, and somehow gets stranded in Venice, where she is enlisted to Alessandra’s entourage as her dresser. Her on-off relations with the handsome young Latin American conductor are then rekindled. During the third season Hailey will also be trying her hand at conducting, since playing the oboe seems to be no way to make a living.
Full of good things
On the whole, “Mozart in the Jungle” is an oddity, as TV series go. It is not topical, has nothing to do with current events (if one does not insist that the new conductor behaves in unpredictable Trump-like ways). And it does not pander to popular tastes; it is about classical musicians, who are popular mainly among those who like classical music – which, by accepted norms of “popularity,” is anything but popular. As such, it shows that life in showbiz (and classical music is as showbiz as it gets) is tough, demanding, mostly rough, and with very few moments of very elusive bliss, once in a while.
The series has created its own audience, mainly among those who loved classical music to begin with, and also among the upper echelon of classical music stars. In its first season, Gustavo Dudamel appeared in a cameo role, as an usher who advises De Souza on career moves; pianists Lang Lang and Emmanuel Ax and violinist Joshua Bell had romps on the set as themselves. In the third season, there is a scene shot on a Venetian canal in which one gondola, carrying Bellucci and a grand piano, approaches another, carrying Placido Domingo and a string quartet. When the two gondolas touch bows, Domingo steps over to Bellucci, and together they intone a duet from “Don Giovanni.”
The nicest thing about “Mozart in the Jungle” is that it’s so full of good things: the plot, with colorful, larger-than-life characters, each with his or her own back story (and no violent deaths); amazingly varied pieces of classical music that are as beautiful (Mozart) and as bizarre-sounding at first hearing as can be (Messiaen, played by the orchestra to prisoners at Rikers Island), and there are the beautiful locations where the episodes are shot, while the orchestra itself is on strike.
They say that as the Titanic was slowly sinking, the orchestra on board continued to play, and that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Will I go down in my own history as someone who kept watching “Mozart in the Jungle” while the world goes to hell in a handcart?