Surely all the Neil Shicoff fans will rejoice over the existence of Paula Heil Fisher's Shicoff-lauding documentary Finding Eléazar, but opera novitiates will be understandably fidgety. Fisher follows Shicoff as he prepares to perform the lead role in the early-19th-century opera La Juive ("The Jewess"), a piece that was one of Enrico Caruso's favorites, but was banned by the Nazis and all but forgotten until Shicoff helped revive it in Vienna in 1999. This new production at New York's Metropolitan Opera House changes the backdrop, moving the story from the 1400s to the 1930s, and from Italy to Germany. Fisher records the bickering during the development process—including Shicoff's worry that Nazis aren't relevant anymore—and she sticks with the tenor as he researches his role and sweats out the months, days, and hours to opening curtain. Fisher shoots vérité-style, but loses her nerve in the editing room, tricking up the footage and cutting straight to the rare moments of conflict or anxiety. The result plays like a DVD bonus feature stretched to feature-length.
That said, there are some valuable insights on the documentary's periphery. Finding Eléazar dwells in the rarefied air of the New York art world, where creators, critics, and curators marvel sedately at one another's powers. And though Shicoff isn't an especially complex guy—at least not as presented here—Finding Eléazar offers a couple of glimpses into his neuroses, including a scene where he has his vocal chords examined by a doctor, for added confidence.
Unsurprisingly, the documentary's best moments come during scenes when Shicoff gets to sing, like the studio recording of his aria, which is as committed and stirring as any live performance. Shicoff cops to becoming "more fanatical and cynical" as his preparation mounts, and he's clearly a live wire on opening night, pacing backstage to keep his energy up. (By the end of the last act, he's so drained that he barely seems to register the applause.) But compared to great documentaries about the process behind performance—Last Dance and Original Cast Album: Company spring to mind—Finding Eléazar is too choppy and fussy. And Fisher squanders almost all goodwill during the La Juive finale, which she accompanies with a montage of images from World War II, civil-rights demonstrations, and Third World revolutions. It's a painfully presumptuous moment, and completely unearned.