Opera Meets Film: How Emotional Turmoil In ‘The Favourite’ Gets Underlined By Purcell’s ‘Music For A While’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite.”

We’re at a crucial juncture in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite.” Abigail Hill has managed to get rid of Sarah and take her place by Queen Anne’s side. All is well for Abigail, except unbeknownst to her, Sarah is on her way “back from the dead.”

So Lanthimos cuts to our first and only true “operatic” selection of the film – Purcell’s setting of Dryden’s “Music for a While.” When we first hear the piece, the text “Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile,” which essentially emphasizes Abigail’s position. She’s sitting in a drawing room with other ladies of the court, listening to music. She looks victorious and at ease, completely unaware of any looming danger to her situation.

As the music continues, Sarah enters the space and gradually it all comes to an end without any completion, underlying the end of Abigail’s tranquility and resuming their complex rivalry for Queen Anne’s affections.

But the piece works on deeper levels as well. It originates from Dryden’s own “Oedipus, A Tragedy,” a reworking of the famed Greek tragedy. Dryden composed it in 1678 and Purcell composed the music in 1692; Queen Anne lived between 1665-1714, so the choice of music on a narrative level emphasizes the period of the story.

The piece makes specific mention of Alecto, one of the Furies, who was responsible for persecuting those who kill a parent (matching up perfectly with Oedipus). Scott Horton of “Harper’s Magazine,” asserts that in the context of the piece, the Alecto imagery represents “a mind torn apart by a thousand different voices (symbolized by the snakes), incapable of rational thought, filled with anger.” Furthermore, Horton suggests that in the text music is the solution to healing the distraught mind.

In “The Favourite,” Anne’s mind is torn up by her affections for the two women that dominate her life and these emotions actually debilitate her. She can’t function properly without them and also because of them, her dependence keeps her in a constant loop. The film suggests that Anne cannot retain complete rational thought of her own and the film’s final moments emphasize her growing rage as she bans her beloved Sarah when she doesn’t receive the pleas for forgiveness she expects. The final image, in which she lashes out at Abigail underlines this anger and her using Abigail to prop herself up only furthers this imagery.

There are many scenes that involve music in the film, but interestingly, none of them feature the Queen enjoying herself. Instead, the major party sequences with dance emphasize the revels of first Sarah and later Abigail. In both scenes, Anne interrupts the festivities and she even appears in the first of these; however, she leaves rather quickly. And the scene that features “Music for a While” is all about Sarah and Abigail, the Queen not even present in the room.

The Queen never gets any healing, much less from music itself.


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