Opera Meets Film: ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’s’ ‘Turandot’ Sequence A Callback With Emotional Insight

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 we will take a look at the blockbuster “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.”

“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” is a very good action movie that includes a great sequence in an opera house.

It isn’t the first time that we see this kind of sequence in an action film. We recently discussed “Tosca” in “Quantum of Solace” and how the opera itself is a comment on the emotional substance of the film.

“Mission Impossible” doesn’t quite operate in the same vein, though its use of opera is quite interesting from a number of different angles.

Introduce a Character Through Opera

The first appearance of opera comes in the form of Benji playing video games in the office with the overture to “Le Nozze di Figaro” blazing through his headphones. Preceding scenes have showcased Alec Baldwin and Jeremy Renner’s characters in serious and heated discussion over the future of IMF. But when Mozart’s music comes roaring in with its jovial and sprightly manner, we know that Benji is in a different world. It’s the perfect introduction to his character and hints at more to come. First off, he’s a Brit in an American intelligence agency; not that it’s unusual, but certainly highlights his position as somewhat of an outsider in not only nationality but character. He’s also playing video games at work, which further emphasizes his unruliness. It will all come into play as we see him interact with Ethan Hunt in the next sequence I am about to relate.

Hitchcock & Puccini

That, of course, is the famed action sequence at the Vienna State Opera.

This set piece is excellent in its execution and its way to cue suspense in the audience. Furthermore, it makes a subtle jab at the opera that it represents.

The entire piece is a callback to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in which an assassination is planned at the Royal Albert Hall. Hitchcock has already cued the audience to the musical moment when the murder will occur in a previous scene and further reinforces it with close-ups of the sheet music during the performance.

In “Mission Impossible,” the plot of the sequence also revolves around an assassination attempt during a performance of “Turandot.” Opera lovers may be distraught by the scrambling of some of the scenes of the opera, but this is not something we haven’t seen before in a film (see the “Godfather Part III,” which incidentally also features an assassination attempt during an opera performance). In any case, “Turandot” proves to be a solid choice overall mainly because director Christopher McQuarrie doesn’t need to set up the climax for audiences; “Nessun Dorma” is such a fixture of popular culture that they can guess where the big gunshot is going to happen. Just to be safe, McQuarrie, taking a cue from Hitchcock, gives the audience a closeup of the music with the text, “Vincero,” clearly visible to the viewer.

And with that we get to experience 10 full minutes of “Turandot” with tenor Gregory Kunde and soprano Lise Lindstrom.

You can watch the entire sequence here.

And the scene eventually builds to the famed High B on “Nessun Dorma,” where the opera reaches an untimely conclusion. The ending of “Turandot” has always been a major concern around the opera community and in this case, McQuarrie makes a subtle suggestion to the fact that he’s not going to get into that debate at all – this performance of “Turandot” gets no ending.

Love Beneath it All

But that’s not where it all ends. In an interesting musical choice, composer Joe Kraemer decides that the “Turandot” sequence is not going to simply be an isolated incident in the film, but decides to weave “Nessun dorma” into the tapestry of his music.

We only ever get to hear the famed melody two more times in the film and they both showcase the relationship between Hunt and Ilsa Faust. The first time, she asks him to come away with her. The second time is their final scene together when one might expect them to kiss; instead, they hug and we hear the melody. Just as in this film, the melody appears three times in Puccini’s opera (though admittedly the final time is Alfano’s choice, not Puccini’s). Calaf sings it first to present Turandot with a way out of their marriage; then he sings the melody during his famed aria when he is convinced of victory; then the chorus takes it away at the grand finale to celebrate their love. But we all know that Calaf and Turandot’s feelings toward each other are extremely ambiguous throughout the opera (we never really believe that she truly loves him), so too do we constantly wonder where the relationship between Ethan and Ilsa is going. It starts off with tremendous ambiguity; she saves him from certain death but then shows up at the opera looking like she might commit murder. We are kept guessing her motivations for most of the movie and when we realize what she really stands for, then the questions of whether she and Ethan might develop a romantic affection take over. It’s never settled in this film, though heavily hinted, but her return in the sequel suggestions that this story might still have more to tell.


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