by Sam Juliano
Franco Zeffirelli achieved what no other had managed before or since. He scored major successes on the opera stage, in the theatre and the cinema, and eventually brought these forms together to become the greatest director of “opera films” in a prolific run in the 1980’s. Once a student of art and architecture, Zeffirelli reportedly turned to the theatre after watching Olivier’s visually arresting Henry V, and while working as a scenic painter in Florence was hired to work as an assistant director under renowned film director Luchino Visconti, for the film La Terra Trema, released in 1948. Zeffirelli later worked with Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and in the 1960’s achieved moderate success directing and designing his own plays in New York and London. His special gift was remarkable visual design and he eventually crafted extraordinary sets for the works of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Mozart on opera stages and directed some lush period films based on Shakespeare and religious figures. In the latter pursuit Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, a stunningly beautiful color film that has retained it’s popularity in schools and on internet chat boards decades later, featured attractive teens in the lead roles. While that film remains the one the director is principally known for among film fans, he achieved no less a critical success the year before that with another Bard standard, The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In 1973 he again produced visual ravishments with Brother Sun Sister Moon based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and then directed a mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth that still hold high ratings when aired today. But Zeffirelli to the delight of the purists has always been a staunch traditionalist. This has endeared him to the brass at the Metropolitan Opera and for those who strongly favor the period trappings and the original intentions of the works’ creators.
The director’s celebrated run of four opera films (two by the master Giuseppe Verdi) was accomplished during a period where he was directing stage productions at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the films, La Traviata, based on one of Verdi’s five irrefutable masterpieces is considered by many if not most as the greatest opera film of all-time, and the one that above all others stands as the model. Featuring the then matinee idol singer Placido Domingo, and a model of operatic intensity, the soprano Teresa Stratas in the leads, the resulting film is a benchmark of sumptuous imagery in the service of what many see today as the most all-encompassing art form.
It’s hard, now, to imagine the powerful effect of La Traviata when it burst forth on the world in 1853. The fallen woman with the heart of gold is now an archetype, but then she was a shocking development. Violetta’s death from consumption, tragic and touching to us, was at that time an uncomfortable slice of realism, similar to the spectacle of someone dying of cancer today. Furthermore, the contemporary setting was an innovation apparently so nerve-wracking that, for the opera’s premiere, the action was thrust back to the year 1700. But even more significant in the end analysis in that the more far-reaching development is less tangible: the introduction of intimacy into a genre previously dominated by the monumental, the monstrous or the farcical. In La Traviata there are no grand pageants, rebellious armies, vicious tyrants, foul murders, wily servants or caprices. Rather we have three characters who love and torment one another, who are torn between what they desire and what they know, whose flesh is both demanding and decaying – three characters who are amazingly contemporary. Violetta Valery, though tragic, is not improbable, which is really what makes her story heartrending and completely satisfying. It is also what makes the role both a great opportunity and a treacherous snare for a soprano. Violetta depends on dramatic ability; a mediocre singer with superior acting skills can triumph in the role, while a soprano with a lovely voice and a wooden delivery will invariably fail. Those who combine voice and dramatic talent – Maria Callas for instance – are the immortal Violettas. Zeffirelli himself worked with Callas on a production of La Traviata in Dallas in 1959.
The story of La Traviata is an intimate and unconvoluted as any in the operatic repetoire. It’s libretto is adapted from “La Dame aux camelias” an 1852 play by Alexandre Dumas. Initially set in 1850 Paris it chronicles the affair betwen Alfredo Germont (Placido Domingo) and Violetta Valery (Teresa Stratas), known as the Lady of Camelias. Overcoming her doubts, he convinces her that a man can truly love a coutesan. Knowing she’s dying of consumption, and in love for the first time, she relocates to the country to live with Alfredo. There his family-oriented father, Giorgio Germont persuades her she must give up Alfredo in order to protect the family’s reputation and preserve the engagement of Alfredo’s sister. Violetta reluctantly agrees and returns to her former protector, the Baron Douphol. Distressed at her departure, and unaware of his father’s intervention, Alfredo humiliates her in public, is disowned by his father -who at that point recognizes Violetta’s merit and sacrifice- and is challenged by Douphol to a duel. When Alfredo later learns the truth about her selflessness, he returns to repent at her deathbed. The ending of La Traviata is one of opera’s most emotionally wrenching scenes, certainly comparable in it’s intimacy and tragic essence to Verdi’s own Rigoletto, and Puccini’s three most renowned works: La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Indeed the demise of the frail young soprano travels the same path as Boheme, which charters the love among Bohemian artists in the same locale. But there are also some crucial differences, which at the time of the opera’s first staging was ground-breaking.
Violetta is based on a real woman, Marie Duplessis, depicted in the Dumas play. Human and feminine, she’s the dominant character in the opera, a worldly courtesan who ordinarily plays all the angles with men but here gives up the one man she truly loves because she does truly love him. This plot was reportedly considered immoral by some, especially by the London critics, but the public of course thought otherwise and liked the sensationalist underpinnings, attending the stagings in droves. Charges of indecency and baudiness no doubt fueled the public interest an dassured a financial success. While it can reasonably be assumed that it had once been acceptable for heroes to experience romantic dalliances, it was never the case with heroines. Hence with Violetta Verdi chartered new territory. Politely referred to as a courtesan, Violetta is a high-priced prostitute, who up till Alfredo, had been in the game for the money alone. It’s somewhat inconceivable that Alfredo is so naive, his father so selfish, and so willing to guilt-trip his son, and Violetta so noble, but this is mix that yields a dramatic intensity rarely seen in the theatre or on the opera stage. Setting the opera in contemporary Paris at the time caused Verdi some problems among the proper women who weren’t thrilled to have their own daughters watching an opera about a prostitute and her friends making a living by selling sex. But even more depressing of course was the coughing of Violetta from the outset, a sure sign she’s be dead before the opera ended.
Zeffirelli, a drama queen at heart (his re-make of The Champ tapped into this interest most extravagently) was a perfect fit for this opera, where he was able to combine this propensity with his roving eye for pictorial grandeur. The lush cinematography he negotiated with his cameraman Ennio Guarnieri (Brother Sun Sister Moon) actually borders overkill, but by visually imagining what opera goers could never physically realize on a stage, the director was tapping into everyone’s most rapturous and sensory thoughts, a perfect wedding of physical beauty with the rawest constriction of emotion. Zeffirelli imbued his compositions with painterly passion, and one can clearly see the influence of Dante Rossetti and Thomas Collinson. The director opts for a simple flashback structure, opening the film with silent credits set against pastel-colored shots of mid-19th century Paris, with the aural accompaniment of the melancholy prelude. The camera enters Violetta’s home, revealing sheets covering the furniture in rooms lit solely by light filtered through curtained windows. While Violetta lies dying in a room at the other end of the house there is a congreagation of movers and creditors, who are obviously desecrating the house inhabited by someone still living. Violetta, near-death, rises as a ghost, and watched by an awe-stricken workman as she visually recollects the “happy days” in an extended flashback. We then witness her meeting with Alfredo, the idyllic love in the countryside environs, and the sad renunciation of Alfredo for his family’s benefit. Zeffirelli uses the montage device as effectively as anyone, and certainly crafts the premiere achievement in this regard in an opera film. One arresting sequence, imbued with visual lyricism features Alfredo’s sister, who possesses as classical a profile as anyone to be seen in a period painting.
Zeffirelli has of course assembled one of the greatest casts ever to take on this seminal work, and for many it’s the one most closely associated with Placido Domingo’s career. While the great Spanish tenor was a bit too old to play to play Alfredo, he compensates with a dashing performance and the rare attribute of a natural voice, uncorrupted by dubbing or lip-synching. And what a voice that is! On any list of opera’s greatest all-time tenors, Domingo’s is always prominantly posed. His rolicking interpretation of the first act’s “Brindisi” (“The Drinking Song”) remains the standard that aspiring tenors study to this day. Later his solo “De’ miei bollentin spiriti” as he sings of his joy and what Violetta has taught him of love, (“Since she told me I was her love forever I have lived close to heaven”) is one of those sublime moments that stops time in its tracks. On balance Teresa Stratus is a deeply affecting Violetta even though her voice in the highest registers shows some strain. Zeffirelli knew she was a perfect physical incaranation of the character – pretty, gaunt and ghostly, with a floating sense of movement, and a magnificent voice. One of the film’s and the opera’s supreme highlights is “Sempre Libra,” the second half of a ravishing double aria that begins with “E strano…Ah! fors’ e lui.” One moment she wonders whether Alfredo and his love can be for real; the next she tells herself that she’ll not give up going from pleasure to pleasure. Verdi wrote the scene so that Alfredo’s distant voice can be heard encoring the lovely melody from their previous duet, “Di quell’ amor:” Now at last, true happiness and mysterious power. Violetta’s farewell scene before her passing is of course emotionally shattering and Stratas instills a piercing resonance into the aria, “Addio del Passato.” The opera’s only other major role is that of Germont, Alfredo’s father, who of course in the instigating force that persuades Violetta to renouce his son Alfredo. The baritone Cornell MacNeil sounds like he was born to play the part and his famous duet with Stratas, which many consider the greatest duet that Verdi ever wrote in his prolific career. He adds his own memorable aria, “Di Provenza il mar,” when he begs Alfredo to leave Violetta for the family home in Provence: “I have never stopped praying that you would see your way to come home to us. God hear my plea.” It’s worth noting that two distinguished dancers from the Bolshoi State Academic Theatre are featured in the magnificent ball scene: Ekaterina Maksimova and Vladimir Vassiljev, and that the film’s conductor and musical director was James Levine, who still conducts at the Met and serves as it’s ‘artistic director.’ Levine’s work with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus for much of Verdi’s canaon is unsurpassed, and a Zeffirelli production has been staged at the Met for over two decades, where Levine has conducted a number of the performances.
While a well sung and staged La Traviata will always captivate opera house audiences, there’s an inherent advantage in a film that flaunts all the visual possibilities attached with gorgeous scenery and lush interior decor, two aspects of this story that are only hinted on in some productions. When you add in the urgency of the close-up and an astute eye for framing and color balance you have the makings for operatic perfection. And when the subject is the one that the composer himself considered his greatest work, you are flirting with true greatness. Franco Zeffirelli may well have reached that plateau while setting the bar for opera in the cinema.
How La Traviata made the ‘Elite 70’:
Sam Juliano’s No. 5 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 15 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 47 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 53 choice