Zoltan Szanto (Arestrup) is a conductor unknown outside his native Hungary. But that should change with his new assignment: stewardship of the Opera Europa's avant-garde production of Wagner's Tannhauser, starring Swedish diva Karin Anderson (Close, with an accent that wavers between hoarding-school British, American and Middle European). Meeting Venus paints a vivid, convincing picture of the behind-the-scenes hysteria, histrionics and highly active hormones indigenous to opera.
Equally striking are the impossible conditions—a metaphor for Europe's political unrest—under which the dedicated, frustrated Szanto must toil. The tenor has a sore throat, the management is squabbling, the chorus wants to change its rehearsal schedule, the dancers are on strike, union problems won't quit, and Karin, at least initially, offers Szanto nothing but contempt and high notes.
What is not convincing is the affair between conductor and diva. The married Szanto, wonderfully played by the French-born Arestrup, is warned that Anderson has already mined several conductors, yet nothing about the way the role is written or Close's performance suggests a woman with the power to intrigue, let alone min. It's baffling to hear an anguished Szanto say, "I only know I'm not talented without you," and to see him bang on her hotel door late at night and, when denied access, howl up to her from the street. (PG-13)