by Sam Juliano
The ‘opera film’ as it is referred to in its simplest incarnation is a hybrid of two disparate art forms, that merge to create a vehicle of artistic expression that is like no other. The incomparable experience of visiting an opera house yields an intimacy that can’t be replicated with simulcasts shown in movie theatres, nor with the in-home viewing of taped performances. Yet, for all it’s fidelity to what is often regarded as the ‘world’s greatest art form’ live opera can be an excruciating grind for some because of excessive length, overhead or back of seat subtitles, and minimalist sets that often don’t physically replicate the setting envisioned by the composer. In the early 60’s film directors began to explore new avenues to present opera in sensory terms, showcasing lush settings, ravishing costumes and expressionist filmmaking that allowed the opera basics to shine forth in a completely new light. The best singers of their times were featured in stunning close-up, and medieval tapestries were often re-created to make the stories more alluring and contextually persuasive. The projected permanency of the opera film insured that casting directors painstakingly examine all options before settling on final choices, and orchestras at the peak of their powers were chosen to give the most compelling and faithful readings of the respective works. The result was a new form that allowed opera to be showcased in purely cinematic terms, while simultaneously enriching and accentuating the elements that had the most appeal in the first place. By providing a lustrous and atmospheric canvas, opera was given a new life and an opportunity to appeal to the masses. Three opera film directors, all of whom are still alive and working: Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Peter Weigl, created the most exquisite entries in the field, and all three were prolific and had a talent for composition and framing, and uncanny knack for getting the proper readings for their musicians and extraordinary vocal performances from their stars. Hence, on record, with all the indelible embellishments in place, the work of these remarkably gifted artists has resulted in large measure the finest operatic works available today in any presentation. of course, there other world-class directors who contributed a single great work: Joseph Losey (Don Giovanni), Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (Parsifal),
With few exceptions, all opera films debuted in movie theatres, and were later shown on television and released on tape, laserdisc and DVD. As such, every entry is rightly eligible for inclusion on the decade pollings here at Wonders in the Dark, especially since a number work as daring cinema as well as impeccably transcribed opera. In painstakingly surveying the full output of opera films, nearly all of which I own on DVD, I quickly deduced that there is no rhyme or reason when one judges the best entries. Some of the greatest operas have not been the subject of an ‘opera film’ at all, much less a successful one. Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg have not been attempted, even though each has been captured impressively in various productions, including the James Levine conducted Metropolitan Opera staging. Likewise, Puccini’s rapturous Turandot, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Aida and Richard Strauss’s enchanting Der Rosenskavalier are MIA on the filmed opera front. The biggest casualty, comparatively speaking is George Frideric Handel, who was one of opera’s most prolific composers, yet his stagy eighteenth-century oratorios haven’t sufficiently interested film directors, who feel they should be restricted to the stage.
In any case, the five greatest opera composers who ever lived: Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Strauss are well enough represented by opera films, and other major figures such as Bizet, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Britten, Offenbach, Smetana, and even Delius and Shostokovich are represented by at least one exceptional opera film, with a few of these more than one. While the earliest opera film to make my Top 30 list, is Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, (1951) I was reminded earlier today on the phone by Allan (who is not a real fan of opera, but has an encyclopedic memory) that a few Tito Gobbi operas based on Verdi, were released in the 40’s to fair acclaim. However, these fall outside the classification of opera film in my survey, as they did not employ the elements that helped to define the choices on The List, namely technicolor, panavision, exotic settings, and sustained cognizance that the finished product is film that happens to be comprised of operatic context. The 1980’s were the richest period for the best opera films, and the lion’s share of inclusions in my list are from this decade. As the 1980’s poll is just about upon us, I wanted to run this post to coincide with it. There are more than 30 worthy opera films, but thats the number I chose to consider. The numerical order as always is half an attempt to offer a comparative value judgement and half for dramatics. There is little difference in quality between Numbers 1 and 25. I provided brief commentary for the top 10 and just listed Numbers 11 to 25. To repeat what I implied earlier. This is not a list of the greatest operas per se, but a list of the greatest opera films. The fact that many of the greatest operas appear on the list simply speaks for the influence they have had on filmmakers.
1 La Traviata (Verdi) 1983, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, this may well be the greatest opera film of them all. It’s beautifully sung by Domingo and Stratas, deftly orchestrated, and the lush settings, costumes and decor bring more to this Verdi classic than any in-house production could ever accomplish. As per this work’s essence, it’s a timeless story that leaves one shattered. “Sempre Libra” and “The Drinking Song” have never registered so magnificently. Zeffirelli was at the top of his game with this, Otello and Cavaleria Rusticana during this period.
2 Parsifal (Wagner) 1982, directed by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg; While anyone wishing a traditional interpretation of one of the greatest opera ever written (the first act overture may well the most beautiful piece of music to grace the human ear) should look to stage recordings, Syberberg brings that singular, expressionistic, avant garde style, that creates a new work of art from an old one. No opera is as spiritually enveloping as this last of Wagner’s works, which deals with the search for the Holy Grail.
3 Don Giovanni (Mozart) 1979, directed by Joseph Losey; this is a stunningly mounted, and brilliantly atmospheric piece that fully engages this magisterial opera with its philosophical underpinnings. It may be Losey’s finest cinematic outing, and Ruggerio Raimondi, Jose Van Dam, Kiri Te Kanawa and Kenneth Riegel has never been better. This is the definitive Don Giovanni.
4 The Magic Flute (Mozart) 1975; directed by Ingmar Bergman; This masterwork is both cinematic (allowing for manipulations of time and space) and highly theatrical, blending the great master’s love of both forms. Typical for Bergman, it’s cerebral, and brings up some of the darker aspects of Mozart’s operatic masterpiece.
5 Carmen (Bizet) 1984; directed by Franceso Rosi; Julia Migenes makes a superb Carmen, as she comes across as someone who could lead a man to ruination, and she’s a splendid singer, as is the legendary Don Jose, Placido Domingo. I was almost reluctant to place this as high as I did because of it’s wide popularity, but there’s a reason it’s so beloved. Rosi’s use of setting is unmatched here, and all the highlights are note-perfect.
6 Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky) 1988; directed by Peter Weigl; this is an altogether ravishing film, intoxicating and well-sung, even if there is a dubbing issue. No matter, as Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera could never look and hear so resplendently. The women are superlative, the cinematography breathless, the orchestration sublime. Theresa Kubiak is heartbreaking as the heroine Tatiana, and George Solti captures the full-range of this great Tchaikovsky score.
7 Otello (Verdi) 1986; directed by Franco Zeffirelli; one of the opera’s most shattering moments, “The Willow Song” has been cut, and while that is rather unforgivable, Franco Zeffirelli’s other ‘liberties’ come off brilliantly. Both Domingo as Otello, and Ricciarelli as Desdemona are definitive, and Justino Diaz as Iago is excellent. Great set design, lighting and atmospheric, capturing the escalating tensions of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. The framing, the compositions, the spectacular orchestration all conspire to leave one shaken.
8 Madama Butterfly (Puccini) This 1995 Frédéric Mitterand production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly demonstrates the power of film to expand the audiovisual horizons of opera. First, it presents mostly young, attractive singers — such as 23-year-old Chinese soprano Ying Huan — in the principal roles instead of the typical aging and often portly singers. Huan’s stunning voice and innocent face make her a nearly perfect Cio-Cio San. Second, the film sets the action in a lush, lakeside Tunisian hamlet specially constructed to resemble the setting of the opera, a Japanese town outside Nagasaki. Such an arrangement permits the camera to break free of the stage-bound environment and roam outdoors and indoors, marrying nature with the culture and costumes of 1904 Japan and the splendor of Puccini’s music. Third, the film uses technical magic — acoustics, stereo sound reproduction, period costumes, special effects, careful cinematography, and subtitles — to take the opera well beyond the limits of the conventional opera stage. Of course, it is the haunting orchestral and vocal melodies that tell the story. Huan and tenor Richard Troxell ate excellent.
9 La Boheme (Puccini) 1965; directed by Franco Zeffirelli; The 1963 Milan production of La Boheme, preserved in this 1965 film, provides a richly satisfying take on Puccinis much-loved romantic tragedy. The staging is opulent, not least in the way Zeffirelli opens up the Cafe Momus and turns it into a warm, vibrant haven for the bohemians and their followers. But its the relationships which really matter here. Puccinis score–conducted with restrained passion by Herbert von Karajan–develops in a wonderfully linear way, with some of his most intensely moving arias and duets underpinning the evolution of the bohemian artists, particularly Rodolfo and Marcello, from immature egotists to rounded human beings, touched by tragedy. The filming is a bit unsophisticated by the sonorous melodies, and the singing from Raimondi and Mirella Freni is magnificent, and in a class by itself. I think I play this more than any other opera.
10 Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) 1974; Like all successfully filmed operas, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1974 film of his 1972 La Scala production of The Barber of Seville weaves its magic on multiple levels: naturalistic lighting and camera work that take the viewer to the heart of the action; wonderful casting and magnificent singing; singers who can act; and conducting (by Claudio Abbado) that simply revels in the richness of an extraordinarily vibrant and much-loved score. Rossini’s 1816 work, based on Beaumarchais’s Figaro characters, is one of the great joys of comic opera, crammed with familiar arias and duets, all of which drive the galloping pace of the book without ever interrupting the plot. At the heart of the tale is Figaro (Hermann Prey, making the most of his trademark theme “Largo al factotum”) and the love triangle of Count Almaviva (a lusty Luigi Alva), the willful Rosina (Teresa Berganza at the peak of her mezzo-soprano powers), and her guardian with an ulterior motive, Batolo. No matter how many times you watch this you are always mesmerized.
11 Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) 1982; directed by Franco Zeffirelli
12 Rigoletto (Verdi) 1983; Both Ingvar Wixell and Luciano Pavarotti are spectacular in this great film.
13 Salome (Strauss) 1992; directed by Gotz Friedrich
14 A Village Romeo and Juliet (Delius) 1986; directed by Peter Weigel
15 Boris Gudonov (Mussorgsky) 1956; directed by Vera Stroyera
16 The Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach) 1951; directed by Powell and Pressburger
17 Tosca (Puccini) 1976; directed by Gianfranco De Bosio
18 Le Nozze di Figaro 1978; (Mozart) directed by Jean-Pierre Ponelle
19 Death in Venice (Britten) 1981; directed by Tony Palmer
20 Elektra (Strauss) 1993; directed by Gotz Friedrich
21 Werther (Massenet) 1985; directed by Peter Weigl
22 Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) 1984; directed by Franco Zeffirelli
23 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovich) 1992; directed by Peter Weigl
24 The Bartered Bride (Smetana) 1981; directed by Frantisek Filip
25 Maria Stuarda (Donizetti) 1988; directed by Peter Weigl