Opera Movies

January 2001

by Edward Jay Epstein

Bizet's Carmen (1984). Francesco Rosi, director.
Otello (1986). Franco Zeffirelli, director.
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (1992). Petr Weigl, director.

Why can't great movies be made out of great operas? To get a handle on this question, I invited a select audience of die-hard live opera buffs to see highly rated movies of operas on DVDs and laserdiscs in my screening room. Of course, a live performance at its best in a great acoustical venue has a magic that no replication can match. But not all live performances in the real world attain this magic: Singers' performances are often flawed-I watched Pavarotti's voice crack so badly during the first act of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment that he had to be replaced by another tenor-and acoustics vary often with where you are seated. A movie has the potential of capturing peak performances and digital reproduction on a DVD is at least constant.

Movies, though a different medium, have great potential for operas. Much of the power of opera proceeds from its ability to intensify human emotions, especially those emotions aroused by love, found and lost. Movies have the power to amplify such emotions, as demonstrated by Sergei Eisenstein and Ingmar Bergman. Consider, for example, the close-up, which can direct an audience's attention in ways that a live performance cannot. It can, for example, focus on the human face at the height of emotional crises. Or the subjective camera technique, which can let the audience see through the eyes of the protagonist. It can make an audience "see" the object of desire or pain, real or imagined. Or flashbacks, which break through the unities of time and depict a character's memories. And most importantly, movies have the almost infinite potential of the retake. Like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day who is condemned to keep trying permutations of the same day until he finds the right combination, a film director can re-shoot a scene over and over again until he perfects it to fit his concept-and through editing, he can do it retrospectively.

Opera movies often require dubbing, since opera singers cannot be expected to perform over and over for retakes. But despite the conceit that artists perform best before a live audience, dubbing may improve rather than hurt the quality of the sound. Glenn Gould, for example, who stopped performing before live audiences, argued that a live audience may distract an artist from perfecting his performance. And like Gould, many opera singers prefer to record their arias in the controlled conditions of a recording studio. So, in theory at least, holding aside the social pleasure of being at an opera, there is no visual or sonic barrier that prevents a movie of an opera from surpassing the live performance of an opera.

In fact, not many movies of operas even approach this potential. While there is no shortage of filmed operas, especially since the advent of television, most are merely faithful photoplays of a staged opera. In some, the cameras and microphones are positioned around the stage; in others, the stage itself is moved to more picturesque locations, while the performance remains the same. Even film directors often do no more than photograph staged opera, adding peripheral cinematic segments as Ingmar Bergman did in his montage of the audience (including his granddaughter) in The Magic Flute and Joseph Losey did with his montage of sword fights and fiestas in Don Giovanni. Only a few directors have attempted reconceptualizing the entire opera as a movie.

The most successful of these opera movies is, in my opinion, Francesco Rosi's Bizet's Carmen, filmed in 1984 in 70mm color. The story, drawn from Prosper Merimée's Nineteenth Century play, is familiar and basic: a simple soldier, Don José is beguiled, tormented, and destroyed by the charms of an exotic woman, Carmen. Rosi used true opera singers as principal actors-the tenor Placedo Domingo and the soprano Julia Migenes Johnson. To expand his scope for visualization, he added dialog from Bizet's much wordier original libretto (hence the title "Bizet's Carmen.) In reconstructing the story, he uses cinematic metaphor to stunning effect. For example, he intercuts Don José's plight with that of a powerful bull, snorting, romping, panting, and charging under the illusion of freedom as he is gradually being prepared for the inevitable kill. Cinema, unlike the stage, lends itself to such symbolism. Rosi's real triumph comes from his camera's ability to eroticize Carmen by interpreting the lust of her body language and choreographing her gypsy dances into sexual climaxes, with the help of choreographer Antonio Gades. Such images, combined with meticulously recorded (post-synchronous) six-channel sound, draw the audience into the ceaseless seduction. As an experiment, I switched to the DVD of one of the better stage productions of Carmen at Covent Garden with Maria Ewing playing Carmen. Although Ewing is superb in the role, and very attractive, she could not escape the stilted artificiality of the stage. Before the scene was finished, my opera-philic audience was screaming to return to the movie version. In terms of illusion, there was no real competition to it.

Franco Zeffirelli's 1986 film of Verdi's Otello is a more ambitious reconceptualization. The opera, based on the Shakespearean tragedy, is essentially the story of a hero in a foreign society, Otello the Moor, tormented into murdering his beloved wife, Desdemona, by the deceptions of his cunning aide, Iago. Verdi made the triumph of Iago's evil intellect so central to the opera that he originally titled it Iago. Zeffirelli, who had 20 years' experience directing opera films-in 1982 alone, La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana, and I Pagliacci-shot it in Crete, using well-established opera singers as actors: Placido Domingo (Otello); the beautiful soprano Katia Ricciarelli (Desdemona); and bass Justino Diaz (Iago). Taking full advantage of cinematic techniques, he employs the subjective camera to show the progressively distorted way Otello sees the world, dissolves to flashbacks to fill in the narrative, and applies moody lighting to blur the line between reality and delusion. He also uses his poetic license to change the opera. Not only does he insert dance scenes (which had been in one 1896 Paris version) and an ending where, instead of escaping, Iago is killed by Otello, he cuts out a number of visually static scenes. Unfortunately, some of these scenes contain the preparatory music for the singing that follows (for example, the Willow Song that precedes Otello's murder of his wife). The result of this restructuring is a visually exquisite movie but a compromised opera.

Petr Wiegl, a Czech director who has made a half-dozen opera films, takes a very different approach to Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Shostakovich wrote the opera in 1934, based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov about the destructive sexual lust of a bored housewife in a small town in Tsarist Russia, but it soon ran into the objections of Stalin, which could be lethal in those days, and was withdrawn. In his 1992 production of it, incorporating revisions done by the composer (who had died in 1975), Wiegl uses two casts of characters: One cast, Czech actors, acts out the parts and mouths the words of the libretto, the other cast, who sings the parts off-camera, is made up of world-class opera singers, including the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, for whom Shostakovich had rewritten the role of the housewife (Katerina), and the tenor Nicolai Gedda, who sings the part of her lover (Sergei). Because the Czech actors are well directed (and Russian-speaking), the lip-synching works almost seamlessly. The camera is also able to capture much of the opera's eroticism. In the bedroom scene, for example, there is a series of close-ups of Katerina's lips and nude body that, perfectly synchronized to Shostakovich's orchestral counterpoints, become progressively more intimate. By making the seduction more credible, the film prepares the audience for the lust-inspired murders that follows. Indeed, Wiegl's film so reinforces Shostakovich's musical invention, I preferred it to the live performance I saw soon afterwards at the Metropolitan Opera.

In all these operas, the sound from DVDs, while not as good as one would get at a live performance, was equivalent to CDs. Except for Rosi's Carmen, there is not yet a great operatic movie, but the potential clearly exists. The problem may be that operatic directors do not understand film techniques, or that film directors do not understand the dynamics of opera, or that no one has given them the budget to fully explore the medium. But the challenge remains.