Opera in the movies, and vice versa | Bleader

Opera in the movies, and vice versa

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As someone who enjoys opera but can rarely afford to see it live, I regard the Gene Siskel Film Center’s current opera series (which began a few weeks ago and runs until the beginning of January) as a mixed blessing. These screenings present some of the most popular operas—including Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Tosca—as performed by some of the most respected musicians in the world (and presented in gorgeous surround sound). Better yet, the theatrical experience denies many of the distractions (phones, doorbells, pets) that make it difficult to commit your attention to an entire opera at home.

In short, these are superior introductions to the form and pleasant destinations for a Saturday afternoon. Yet none of these screenings can be called proper films: they’re video recordings of live stage performances, and the three that I’ve seen were shot and edited so indifferently as to sometimes detract from the the works themselves. The organizing tactics of these recordings are strictly televisual, relying (likely from necessity) on a few unobtrusive camera positions, rudimentary editing, and lots of close-ups. If you’re attending these screenings strictly for the music, these flaws can be easily overlooked; but if you’re expecting something like a fusion of cinema and opera, you might be disappointed.

A traditional opera spectator experiences nothing like editing or close-ups, which these presentations contain in abundance. He or she sees the performance from a fixed perspective—even if his or her eye should focus on a particular detail, the entire spectacle remains within view. By its very nature, the art of opera is one of totality—the fusion of music, theater, literature, and visual design. Wagner popularized the term gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”) to describe opera as a form that synthesized all other arts, a definition that could be applied to cinema as well.

There are plenty of successfully operatic films, which bring together disparate elements with such fluidity and emotional directness that they act upon the viewer like a giant aesthetic wave: off the top of my head, I’d list in this category Citizen Kane, Max Ophuls’s La Ronde, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and pretty much anything by Luchino Visconti. There are fewer successful filmed operas, though I can think of at least a few: Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute, and Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huilet’s Moses and Aaron.

The films of this latter category are distinguished by their formal discipline as well as their innovation. Hoffmann and Flute both begin within rigidly defined, highly theatrical spaces so that the fantasy worlds of the operas don’t seem to open up so much as burrow into the imagination. Moses and Aaron, shot perversely on real desert locations and with exceedingly precise direct sound, requires the collaboration of the viewer’s imagination to achieve any operatic effect (it may be the only filmed opera in which the sound of dancers’ footsteps occasionally overwhelms the singing).

It’s worth remembering these films to understand what the current Film Center screenings are not. Never in these recordings does one feel like the experience has been given shape, physical or otherwise. In fact, their aesthetic (for lack of a better word) is based on an intractable paradox: the reductive depiction of outsize emotions. People who are intolerant of opera often gripe that they can’t take its emotional content seriously—and if you were to read the libretto of Tosca (whose narrative depends on seemingly adjusted people regularly driven to murder or suicide) without any knowledge of Puccini’s score, you might concede that the naysayers have a point. Of course, looking exclusively at the libretto would deny Tosca the interaction between form and content, which gives its emotions a sense of mythic inevitability.

These video presentations still do justice to the operas’ scores—thanks, again, to the Film Center’s glorious sound system—particularly when the music is at its most nuanced. This may be why, of the three programs I’ve seen, I most enjoyed the recording of Eugene Onegin, which will be screening this Saturday afternoon and again on Monday the 12th. In that opera, Tchaikovsky often takes an understated approach to Pushkin’s most dramatic scenes, emphasizing the poet’s sophisticated understanding of human nature. Onegin’s callous rejection of Tatyana, the only woman who loves him sincerely, is a standout of this or any Tchaikovsky work, the delicate music suggesting a deluge of emotion just about to emerge.

This Onegin also makes for decent big-screen viewing because the stage production draws so many of its ideas from cinema. The director, Andrea Breth, uses a rotating set that literally moves between scenes—a physical equivalent of what movie editing does. She also directs the performers to express themselves with small gestures more common to black-box theater than to opera, letting Tchaikovsky’s music speak for itself whenever possible. I can’t comment on how this strategy worked onstage, but it translates nicely to close-ups. By contrast, the more traditional staging of Tosca—which has its second screening on Thursday night—suggests self-parody when the larger-than-life gestures are blown up further to cinema size.

In using an orchestra to transform any dramatic moment into grand spectacle, opera is one of the most direct antecedents to movies (this might explain why numerous filmmakers—such as Visconti, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, and David Cronenberg—have been drawn to direct them). And as a movie lover, what I enjoy most about 19th-century operas are the moments that suggest the germination of cinematic worldview. Films as recent as Terence Malick’s The New World and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia suggest that Wagner’s music for Das Rheingold and Tristan and Isolde is still the equal of any cinematic sequence; and the musical interludes of Aida (a recording of which screens at the Film Center on the 17th and the 19th) suggest that Giuseppe Verdi must have had an amazing cinematheque in his head.

Verdi is almost without peer in his ability to convey narrative development through music alone. Watching Aida recently, I was struck by two instrumental passages in the second act that did more to advance the story than anything happening on stage. Both passages accompany scenes on the floor of the Egyptian palace, but where the first is bright and triumphant, the second, which uses similar instrumentation, is downright menacing. Verdi’s arrangements are impeccable, with the full orchestra depicting palace life, whether decadent or doomed, in all its bustling nuance. Thankfully, these parts of the performance transpire mostly in long shot in the video recording I saw. For a few moments, the spectacle of a hundred-odd costumed extras could compete with the blockbuster in the orchestra pit.

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