A couple of things were on my mind as I cued up the third season of Mozart In The Jungle. I realized I was looking forward to the escapism more than ever before, because this has been a no-good, terrible year, in and out of politics. Even with all the comedies out there, Mozart is one of the most transportive. Maybe it’s all the wonderful music, or Gael García Bernal’s performance as a puckish pied piper. But whatever it is, I was ready to be immersed in this oft-zany depiction of life as an artist and all of the compromises that come with it.
Secondly, I wondered if the Amazon series’ big wins at the Golden Globes—Best Comedy and Best Actor in a comedy (bravo, Gael!)—would mean a greater number of people would be joining me in catching up. I really do hope its profile has been raised, because Mozart is absolutely delightful, having hit its stride in its second season. Lola Kirke’s Hailey (or Jai Alai) is a rare ingénue; she’s not perfect, but she’s much more tolerable than a lot of clueless characters (mostly women, regrettably) at the center of all too many stories. Kirk and Bernal anchor and uplift the series, so even though they appeared to have gone their separate ways, Paul Weitz wisely reunites them in the premiere.
As befits its gorgeous, Venetian setting, “La Fiamma” begins with Rodrigo riding his bike to work on one of the canals. It’s the perfect reintroduction, panning out from his smiling face to the reveal the apparatus that’s allowing him to do so. Rodrigo’s mostly guileless, so he wears his disappointment and anger as readily as his pleasure. But there’s a nagging sense that Venice is more of an escape for him than he realizes at first. And yet, who could blame him for being taken in by this tremendous opportunity—conducting the comeback performance of Alessandra, a world-renowned opera diva, otherwise known as La Fiamma? And when she’s played by the gorgeous Monica Bellucci, who would deny Rodrigo the soft “ay” that escapes his lips as he ties her apron for her? If this is a distraction, it could be much worse.
Alessandra is aware of her effect on him, in part because he readily admits to having done “things” as a 13-year-old while listening to her recordings (that’s our Rodrigo). But she’s not so sold on her own reputation that she can’t bear some honesty about the strength of her voice at this point. So she tests Rodrigo, over parmesan cheese and overcooked pasta. Rodrigo almost loses the gig by being too considerate of her feelings, because she is, after all, one of his heroes, in a way. He even calls the meeting “mythological,” which is such an apt descriptor. These scenes cast a spell on the audience and Rodrigo, playing out in the sumptuous setting of Alessandra’s palazzo and with her own soundtrack. It’s a fitting overture for what’s to come, as Rodrigo’s realizes his idol’s feet are made of clay.
La Fiamma doesn’t appear to hide much from him, owning up to her performance anxiety and professional setbacks. They feed off each other’s lack of artifice as much as their appreciation of music, so much so that she’s inspired to join a opera busker for an impromptu duet. Rodrigo’s trying to play it cool and maybe even keep things professional, but when he tells off that professional booer, he might also have been putting on a bit of a show for his beautiful companion.
Rodrigo is just now entering Alessandra’s thrall, but poor Hailey has already been disillusioned with Andrew Walsh of the Andrew Walsh Ensemble (they put the “AWE” in “shock and awe”!). When we catch up with her, she’s mocking her new boss and one-time lover (literally, just the one time, we learn). Hailey’s evolution continues, as she points out that Andrew’s tempos doesn’t always suit the pieces they’re playing. And maybe if she’d left out a reference to Rodrigo or hadn’t used uptalk, he would have heard her. But both of those things apparently offend Andrew. Hailey’s definitely stretching out of her comfort zone by trying to lead the ensemble instead of just her section, so it’s natural that she would sound less than confident in her criticism. But the way Andrew shuts her down speaks volumes about the way women are treated in male-dominated fields, especially younger ones.
Luckily, she’s not in AWE much longer. Food poisoning and a poisoned relationship with her boss gets her kicked out, but on a night when Rodrigo and Alessandra happen to be in the audience. La Fiamma quickly deduces that there’s something going on between her new maestro and the oboist, even though he tries to play it off as mere friendship. But there’s no ignoring the way Rodrigo’s face lights up when he sees her, which raises all kinds of questions about her invitation to Hailey. Alessandra must know how bad things could get with all three of them living under one palazzo roof—love triangles are the stuff opera’s made of, after all. But she either can’t resist it, or she wants to see it play out, to bring “the blood back,” as it were. Rodrigo exits as he entered—on the canal—but in the dark and with two companions. It’s not quite ominous, but it does feel intentional.
The Modern Piece
If there were a character checklist for Mozart—that is, something you’d use to keep track of all the players and their goings-on—Cynthia and Gloria would immediately follow Rodrigo and Hailey on mine. Saffron Burrows’ icy cellist has become a virago, championing the rights of her fellow musicians, while Bernadette Peters’ socialite (but definitely not a dilettante) has presented a more sympathetic opposing figure than you might imagine. The two women face off early on here, with Gloria mortified by the union rally outside of the hall. She should be more embarrassed by the bubble-blowing display going on indoors, but, as she tells the journalist, it’s better than having the place sit empty. She‘s not looking to accept any of the blame for its absence, either, even after being confronted by Cynthia, Union Bob, and a giant inflatable rat that serves as the international symbol for the labor movement. (Even when it’s wearing a powdered wig, presumably.)
The dispute hasn’t worn thin yet, but the decision to rejoin the fray sooner than later is a smart one. The union scuffle deflates as quickly as that rat, and Cynthia’s given an early exit. It’s the only disappointment in an otherwise exceptional episode. Real-life couple Kate Gersten and Matt Shire wrote “The Modern Piece,” and they expertly blend multiple stories, catching us up with not just Cynthia and Gloria, but also Thomas, who’s really stepping out of his milieu. The conductor emeritus has gotten his groove back in and out of the studio. He’s on the verge of having an EDM hit on his hands, and he also can’t keep his hands off Gloria (“yee-haw” indeed). They do have to play off their dalliance as work meetings, but maybe the scandal would boost their annual gifts. Even their regular donors have been abstaining, because bubbles might float, but they don’t move anyone the way some Puccini would.
The real meat of the story is back in Venice, though, where Hailey’s falling in love with the world of opera. She holds back at first, having been sufficiently weirded out by whisper-talking with the diva and being served clams for breakfast (well, lunch). The offending mollusks helped get her fired, after all, but Alessandra encourages her to face her fear of food poisoning by telling her about her suicidal mother. That sounds more like the kind of lunch topic suggestion a German nihilist might make, but it’s really just La Fiamma indulging in an Italian traditino of embracing tragedy. As she told Rodrigo in the premiere, if you can’t stand the tears, get out of the opera.
Weird breakfast aside, Hailey warms to Alessandra’s apparent offer of friendship. Not only has she been invited to stay at the palazzo, but she also gets a job as La Fiamma’s dresser. The whirlwind of luxury and flattery turn Hailey’s head, so she remains unaware of the darker forces at play here. The significance of being asked so many questions about Amy Fisher, a.k.a the Long Island Lolita, is completely lost on her. For now, it also seems to be lost on Rodrigo, too, who just looks happy to see Jai Alai again. But the truth is that Alessandra finds Hailey provincial and unrefined. As she sighs dramatically to Rodrigo and Nico, the composer of the modern piece she’s due to perform, the diva simply can’t understand being the jilted lover in this scenario. It’s not just that Alessandra is unfamiliar with the whole sordid Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco-Mary Jo Buttafuoco tale. She’s simply not the kind of woman any man would reject, let alone treat as a side piece. So she looks to Hailey for inspiration, shading the poor oboist with the lightbulb that’s just gone on over her head.
And poor Hailey remains as eager to please as ever, especially after finishing a bottle of limoncello and trying on some fancy opera costumes. She does pick up on Alessandra mirroring her gestures, but she doesn’t realize the extent to which she’s shaping the character. But, in a way, isn’t Hailey more the Mary Jo than the Amy Fisher here? She’s the one who already has a relationship with Rodrigo, even if it hasn’t fully blossomed into romance. La Fiamma’s the interloper, which makes her Amy. And even though Rodrigo’s been busy trying to find a barge that will make his “heart strings resonate,” he’s already been cast as the Joey.
“The Modern Piece” brilliantly fleshes out the love triangle, but it also undercuts the mounting tension with lighter moments, like Rodrigo’s search for the perfect barge from which Alessandra will mount her comeback. Or Hailey asking for wifi passwords in a building that might be older than the entire United States. Even as it composes a new opera, which is bound to have an unhappy ending, Mozart never loses its established rhythm.
- Monica Bellucci is an inspired choice for an Italian diva, but she’s obviously only lip syncing. The wonderful Ana María Martínez, a Grammy-winning Puerto Rican-American American soprano, is the voice of La Fiamma.
- It would really be a waste of Venice to set up anything other than an opera-inspired arc, right?
- I never skimp on seafood, but maybe that’s because I grew up in the Midwest, where it’s really best not to take chances on it.
- I hope that’s not the last we see of Dermot Mulroney. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s always nice to see an actual musician play a musician. And Andrew Walsh could be a lot of fun. As we learned, he was greedy yet considerate lover—he’s slept with probably everyone in his ensemble, but he shaves the backs of his more hirsute companions.
- “A hop and a skip over RoboCop’s anus” does describe most bad EDM—you’re right about that, Thomas.
- Bernal owned the premiere, which he had to wrest from Bellucci. But Kirke really held our attention this second episode. Few people could stand next to La Fiamma or Monica Bellucci and not feel like they were failing to measure up. And Hailey’s certainly not there yet, but the longing on her face during Alessandra’s late-night rehearsal suggests we shouldn’t count her out.
- Finally, my apologies for the delay on the review for the first episode! Welcome back to TV Club coverage of Mozart, which will be a duet this season. I’ve got the first five episodes, while my talented colleague Esther Zuckerman will handle the second half of season three. This will be the only double review; single-episode reviews will go up at 11 a.m. ET going forward.