Opera Nights at the Movies
Richard Maxwell

Traditionally movies make fun of operas. The fun may be anarchic, as when the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera run ludicrous backdrops up and down during a performance of Il Trovatore, or satirical almost to the point of libel, as in Citizen Kane's caricature of Marion Davies' singing career. All the more striking that in the last few years opera and film have been so effectively combined. From France we have a modish thriller, Diva, which not only exalts the performance of an opera aria but is structured around that performance and its recording. From the tangles of international production we have two excellent adaptations, Losey's Don Giovanni and Zeffirelli's La Traviata, both superior to previous efforts in this vein. If we pause a few paragraphs with Diva, we will see that it tells us a great deal about the other works—particularly about their success in uniting two demanding art forms.

Diva is a sort of cinematic three-ring circus. Jules, a Parisian messenger boy, worships a beautiful black American soprano who refuses to have any of her performances taped. Jules tapes one secretly. Soon two Taiwanese record pirates are after him. They are not alone in their pursuit. Though Jules doesn't know it, he is also carrying around a taped confession which could crack a worldwide drugs-and-prostitution ring. Jules is saved from his various pursuers by a cool operator named Gorodish, who along with Alba, his fourteen-year-old Vietnamese girlfriend (she's an expert thief and models in the nude), hustles the boy off to an unearthly Magritte-style lighthouse, then faces down racketeers and record pirates simultaneously, making a fortune in the process through intricate blackmail techniques. Jules, meanwhile, returns to Paris for one last showdown with his enemies and a final meeting with his diva.

Diva's silly plot—concocted originally by a Swiss novelist who has written a series of thrillers about Gorodish—starts more hares than it can follow. The movie is most nearly satisfactory when it focuses on Jules' worship of the soprano (played by singer Cynthia Hawkins). The camera, as well as the accompanying soundtrack, makes us understand why he adores her. She has great dramatic presence. She sings her aria—a languishing, melodramatic swansong from "La Wally"—and we swoon right along with Jules, even while we share the secret of the taping. This scene is vital, first because it shows genuine love for the music, second because it contains a latent paradox which Diva gradually unfolds. Hawkins plays a character who stakes her artistic integrity on not being recorded. The film, however, doubles Jules' theft, recording the diva's image right along with her voice. Who do we believe, the singer in the story who rejects mechanical reproduction or the singer who cooperated with the moviemakers?

The film takes care to set the diva's motives against Jules'. Art, she affirms, cannot be possessed; it must be experienced, then relinquished. She adds that to be recorded is for her a form of rape, of illicit possession. Jules, by contrast, would never think of using the tape to harass the diva; he would never, for example, put it on the market. His economic disinterestedness looks good when we witness the actions of ruthless record pirates. Jules remains a dreamy, somewhat naive aesthete, and even if he's gotten art and sex mixed up—a condition for which the film supplies much evidence—we stand with him as much as with the diva.

Our feelings are held in a delicately-shifting balance, inclining a little this way and then a little that. The film moves towards its resolution by distinguishing among many kinds of possession: not just Jules' aes­thetic desire for the tape as opposed to the record pirates' financial desire for it, but recording of images versus recording of sounds, recording of still images versus recording of moving ones, recording of music versus recording of the spoken word, and involuntary versus voluntary recording. So many varieties of mechanical reproduction go on dis­play that we end up with only one apparent standard by which to judge them. We evaluate them from the perspective offered by the film's own synthesis of recordings.

This reordering is best accomplished at the end, when Jules manages to return the illicit tape. In the movie's concluding scene, the soprano stands on the stage where the story began while he plays back the aria from "La Wally." She comments, "But I've never heard myself before." No longer a piracy, Jules' tape opens up a new perception of artifice and its uses. We see the diva hear herself singing. Place, person, and voice meet once again, but curiously dissociated, as though that dissociation were necessary for anyone—her or us—to see and hear refleclively. The moment seems to be an analysis, a breaking down into parts; at the same time, it recalls one synthesis, the filmed aria, and per­haps creates another, for it reconciles Cynthia Hawkins with the character she has played. When the character changes her mind about the value of recordings, she and Hawkins become one singer, to whom we listen without being put in Jules' equivocal position.

The film suggests one further perspective. Diva's images are exquisite, perfect . . . every one of them. They are invariably composed and lit as though they were paintings to be savored individually. We would surfeit on this diet, but the movie has a habit of throwing away its beau­tiful pictures. There are too many to be retained or appreciated. Some are irrelevant. Even when they aren't irrelevant, it is the nature of cinema that the projector just keeps turning. The diva, in other words, had a good point when she suggested that art must be relinquished, that it cannot be possessed. This is true especially of arts that exist in a temporal succession, like movies and music. The difference between a movie mechanically reproduced and a live performance of an aria is not that the aria magically, mystically dissolves whereas the movie can be hoarded. Both are fleeting, only the movie's fleetingness can be re-experienced. If we finally identify Hawkins with her character, we do so in part because we understand that film has it both ways.

Diva does quite a bit of aesthetic thinking without straining too hard. The same can be said for the recent Giovanni and Traviata. Rolf Liebermann, who directs the Paris Opera and who started the Giovanni project on its way, has commented: "I no longer believe in operas on film. I do still believe in films of opera." Losey's Giovanni and Zeffirelli's Traviata are both films of opera: both use the resources of cinema to recreate and redefine what happens in a live production of an opera—or for that matter, on a phonograph record of it. Most experienced operagoers will react to this accomplishment with the same kind of doubletake as the viewer who sees the diva hear herself. Once again mechanical reproduction and actual performance intertwine in a complex manner, producing an elusive but powerful experience.

Before attempting any closer evaluation, I will look at a single scene from each film. My description will not be as full as I could wish. Where two forms, film and opera, are so gracefully made to reconfirm and reinforce each other, only a shot by shot and a corresponding bar by bar analysis would suffice. My more modest aim is to remind the viewer and hearer of a particular experience, or else to prepare him for it.

The third number in Giovanni is a trio sung by the Don, his servant Leporello, and Donna Elvira, whom he has seduced. Donna Elvira announces that she is looking for the monster who has deceived her and would tear out his heart could she find him. The Don and Leporello accost her without knowing who she is; she recognizes them before they recognize her. Like the work from which it comes, this scene contains both serious and absurd elements. The absurdity of the situation is evident, with the Don thinking he is about to add a new conquest to his list, but the severe passion of Donna Elvira's complaint prevents the scene from having a comic impact only.

The score that I consult tells me that Donna Elvira should sing her part "facing the auditorium through the entire scene." The Don and Leporello presumably sneak up be­hind her. This is no doubt the sensible placement of actors if one is working with a proscenium stage; Losey deploys his forces differently. During an orchestral introduction to the aria, a veiled Elvira stands sideways to the camera. She is perched on a little rise in a wood. The music begins. Turning about she descends the rise and exits from the wood. As she makes her way towards daylight, she begins to sing. Where can she find the barbarous traitor who seduced her; the answer lies right in front of her.

She is lurking about the grounds of the Don's Palladian villa, seen perhaps a hundred yards away. She wanders over the lawn, closer and closer to the villa. The camera now looks on the scene from a relatively high angle; we notice a road, paralleling the grounds of the villa and—hemmed on one side by houses, on the other by an embankment—running up to meet it. Simultaneously, the veiled lady's complaint gathers in force. Up the road come the Don and his servant; they begin to stalk Elvira, speculating meantime on her identity. From the side, from above, finally from in front of Elvira, we too seek a look at her face. The wind blows her veil against her distinctive, high-boned features, which prove to be those of Kiri Te Kanawa. The three singers finally meet at the steps of the villa, where Donna Elvira unveils herself and the Don must hastily escape inside.

The opening section of La Traviata (immediately after the overture) is set in the splendid home of Violetta Valery, a courtesan. A party is in progress: one group of guests greets another group that has just arrived. The hostess invites everybody to eat, drink, and be merry. She is introduced to Alfredo Germont, who will soon become her lover and take her away from corrupt Parisian luxury. Alfredo declares his adoration while another of Violetta's following, the Baron Douphoul, mutters imprecations against him. The scene invokes a world and peoples it with four of the five characters who will act significant roles in the impending drama. From the first bars of the scene the predominant mood is festive, but lines of conflict are set up so quickly that the famous drinking song which immediately follows can already seem part of an unfolding narrative.

In Zeffirelli's version of this scene, the overture provides a visual as well as a musical lead-in. The camera wanders through a closed and shuttered mansion where objects, furniture, and pictures are all being packed by workmen. Among the workmen is a young man with an open, expressive face; he may remind us a little of Jules in Diva. He comes upon an oval portrait of Violetta. It bears the memorable features of Teresa Stratas (who herself resembles the original Lady of the Camellias, Dumas' Alphonsine Duplessis). The young man stares at the portrait, open-mouthed; the overture moves from a wavering adagio to an extraordinary theme in the violins associated throughout with the opera's heroine. Straying further, the boy peers into a huge bedroom where—lost in one corner—our heroine lies alone and dying. She sits up. She is hoping for someone's arrival. The boy recognizes her disappointment and withdraws.

Now it is Violetta whom the camera follows through the mansion; she surveys the wreck of her fortunes until two blasts of ascending notes in brass draw her attention to a strange metamorphosis. Just down the hall a crowd of elegantly-dressed people swarms under glowing yellow light. Violetta is delighted to recognize herself presiding over this party. The workman's intrusion on her and her intrusion (in memory) on a previous occasion have begun the action of the opera. For a few moments, the camera keeps the viewpoint of Violetta in the present; then it moves in on the scene in the past, presenting Alfredo, the Baron, and a host of cleverly differentiated party-goers. The lines of battle (the Baron shamed by Alfredo's ardent courtship of Violetta) are drawn among the gathering crowd in the entry hall; then the action moves to the dining room, where the drinking song will be sung over a magnificently-laid table.

Losey heightens our appreciation of Mozart's wit, Zeffirelli our vul­nerability to Verdi's pathos. Allowing for such differences, the two treatments share a special strength. Opera is surely among the most stylized of the arts; film is often said to "confront concrete reality." Both directors understand that the concrete reality of film can be used to present the stylization of opera. They establish this point, above all, by relating sound to sight; by arranging for the singers' and the camera's movement through space to underline the structure of the music. Within the territory thus created, the opera can assume an immediacy unlike that of the stage.

The first step—movement through space—is exemplified rather obviously by the numbers just described. In Losey's version of the trio, he emphasizes the converging paths of indignant Elvira, predatory Giovanni, and diffident Leporello, so building up the crazy, comic logic of the meeting. Losey doesn't so much establish the meeting's plausibility as create a little system in which it must necessarily occur. Zeffirelli shows the same flair. He makes the connection intended by Verdi between the overture and the heroine; he elaborates from that connection a sentimental fiction of audiences which appropriately frames the subsequent action. Both films continue in this vein, sometimes with spectacular effectiveness. I will mention briefly two culminating moments, each of which could be the subject of an essay.

During the finale of Giovanni's first act, avenging maskers arrive at the Don's villa by gondola; they proceed up the steps and under the great dome as though, in a series of apprehensive stages, invading a land of evil. The maskers' call for justice ("Protegga il giusto Cielo") is particularly effective: it is filmed from far above as the maskers pass through the rotunda. They seemed almost frightening when they landed; now they seem small and unprotected.

The corresponding culmination in Traviata occurs when, towards the end of the second act, Alfredo remonstrates with Violetta. He thinks she has betrayed him; she is honor-bound not to explain why she hasn't. According to the libretto, Alfredo calls to the guests; they flood into the room, whereupon he publicly insults her. Zeffirelli has Alfredo take a different sort of initiative. He drags Violetta from the small, intimate room in which they have been speaking down a hallway into a huge ballroom. He acts to force her humiliation on her, the camera following behind so that we partici­pate viscerally in his anger, her shame. Zeffirelli has perfectly prepared the great finale of the act.

Movement through space has further implications. It emphasizes the physical presence of the singers and their existence within a particular milieu. Physical presence is less to be taken for granted than it seems. Operagoers do not get very close to opera singers—not unless they have miraculously good seats. This is unfortunate. Te Kanawa and Stratas—not to mention Ruggiero Raimondi as Don Giovanni or Placido Domingo as Alfredo—have the force, the charisma, associated with certain movie actors. Why not, then, put them in a movie where we can see them up close: where their acting, in fact, counts for more than it does from the balcony of the Met?

Aside from the presence of the singers, both films are remarkable for the intricate detail in which their milieux are worked out. There have been complaints on this score, especially about Giovanni. Losey "can't bear to let his great singers merely sing." "Busy-ness is endemic." "Zerlina pursues Mazetto . . . through a veritable jungle of corn-cobs, strings of garlic, hanging hares, racks of fruit, and busy kitchen-hands." However, these complaints by Hermione Lee suggest a sensibility attuned to phonograph recordings, no more privileged a representation of opera than are films. The saturation of detail and social nuance achieved by both Losey and Zeffirelli presupposes another kind of viewer; one who enjoys connecting seeing with hearing, who finds that each activity can illuminate the other, and who might like to see films like these more than once. We learn to handle an overload through repeated viewings and hearings, something much more possible with film adaptations than with live stagings— something not possible at all with a record, where we can only hear. Each representation or realization demands its own aesthetic, its own standard of judgment.

In the mid-Thirties, Walter Ben­jamin and Theodor Adorno had a quarrel about the effect of mechanical reproduction on art. Their dis­pute centered largely on film, which according to Benjamin would soon create a new kind of audience, capable of appreciating works critically instead of on a cultic, ritualistic basis. Adorno was skeptical. He understood that film could project the "aura" by which art had exerted its power in the past. Mechanical re­production did not ensure critical thinking. Our filmed operas would have provided a tantalizing case for Benjamin and Adorno to argue about. They confirm Adorno's point, providing enough aura for any intoxicated operagoer. They also confirm Benjamin's point. Reassembled by the means of cinema, aura takes on a new kind of life, a new kind of existence in the minds of its audience.

We hardly have the vocabulary yet to talk about this phenomenon, which is nonetheless evident even in the most cultic of Thirties films (taking an example very close to Traviata, the Greta Garbo Camille). We can recur to Diva, where the spellbinding performance and its subsequent recording, exploitation, and analysis ultimately reconfirm the original magic—with a difference, however. The same difference is present in the adaptations by Losey and Zeffirelli. A work for the stage is recreated more freely (in space), more densely (in detail), more vividly (in the illusionary closeness of the singers). It remains the same work—yet it does not. We want to keep going to live perform­ances, when we can find them; we want to keep hearing records. The double violation of film provides a third possibility.


Bibliographical note: I have benefited from several articles on the works discussed in this essay. For Diva, see Pauline Kael's review in The New Yorker, April 19, 1983; for Losey's Giovanni, see Roland Gelatt, "Don Giovanni: Opera Into Film," American Film (April 1979), including Rolf Liebermann's comments on opera, film, and "concrete reality"; for Hermione Lee's detractions, see TLS, October 3, 1980. Walter Benjamin's essay is translated in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), ed. by Hannah Arendt and trans. by Harry Zohn. The Benjamin-Adorno dispute is discussed in Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). Lo­sey's Giovanni and Zeffirelli's Tra­viata are dependent on pre-recorded music; the Mozart is conducted by Lorin Maazel, the Verdi by James Levine; both are available as records or tapes. The film of Don Giovanni was shown at Valparaiso University in fall of 1982, thanks to an appropriation from the Cultural Arts Committee of the University.

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