Hollywood Goes to the Opera – More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure

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Feodor Chaliapin Jr. in The Name of the Rose

The devilish Feodor Chaliapin Jr., in The Name of the Rose

I received so much positive feedback about a previous piece that was posted last year entitled “Opera Goes to Hollywood” that I decided to write a follow-up sequel.

I call it “Hollywood Goes to the Opera.” It follows the same general pattern and style as the earlier one – that is, it establishes why movie studios should both stay in and out of the operatic arena, while touching upon the various aspects of this most over-looked of movie sub-genres.

These additional episodes never made it to the original piece, either because of time constraints or lack of available space. With that said, I hope to make amends with this latest post. I also hope you enjoy these extra morsels as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.

Biopics Galore

To quote a phrase from Ripley, “believe it or not” there are dozens of screen biographies of struggling composers, classical musicians, artists, producers and famous opera stars out there, along with their tragically (uh, let’s say “operatically”) inclined lives in-and-out of the theater. It’s no wonder, then, that some of these so-called “efforts” have wound up on the cinematic scrap heap as nothing more than expensive soap duds for the screen, i.e., real celluloid “clunkers,” in the jargon of the time.

Kathryn Grayson in So This is Love poster

Kathryn Grayson in So This is Love poster

Some of the most well-known of these losers include the film “biography” (and I use that term loosely) of our old friend, American soprano Grace Moore. The movie, So This is Love (1953), starring Kathryn Grayson (Kiss Me Kate, Toast of New Orleans) and a pre-talk-show Merv Griffin, is a perfect case in point. The sight of a blonde, flapper-era Grayson is too much to take. And in case you were wondering, Merv is absolutely dreadful in it (no wonder he switched careers by venturing forth into TV Land!).

Next up is the sudser to end all sudsers: Interrupted Melody from 1955, about the star-crossed life of Australian dramatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence, who was cut down in the prime of her life by polio, as played by Eleanor Parker, who is about as Australian as Justin Bieber. The film co-stars Canadian Glenn Ford (very good, in fact) as her husband and a pre-007 Roger Moore (duh… not so good). On the soundtrack is the voluminous singing voice of real-life soprano Eileen Farrell, along with a few less familiar names from the period: tenors William Olvis, Rudolf Petrak, and Armand Tokatyan, and diva Marcella Reale. Get out your handkerchiefs for this one, folks. You’re going to need them!

On the male side of the equation, we have the aforementioned The Great Caruso (1951) with Mario Lanza as the Great One; Tonight We Sing (1953), the musical life of famed impresario Sol Hurok starring David Wayne, who looked nothing at all like Hurok, with opera stars Jan Peerce and Roberta Peters, joined by Italian basso Ezio Pinza as Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin(!), in scenes from Act IV of Gounod’s Faust; a monstrously fictionalized account of composer Johann Strauss Jr.’s life, called The Great Waltz (1938), with a sparkling star turn by the dazzling coloratura Miliza Korjus (she’s also quite attractive).

Capucine & Dirk Bogarde in Song Without End

Capucine & Dirk Bogarde in Song Without End

And then we have the execrable Song Without End from 1960, which purports to describe the amorous affairs of composer and concert pianist Franz Liszt. Featuring an uncomfortably bewigged Dirk Bogarde (who was gay), as Liszt, in his U.S. film debut, and French actress Capucine (who was bisexual) in her first-ever screen appearance, as Princess Caroline, his main love interest. About the only thing Liszt had in common with opera was his fiendishly difficult piano transcriptions and heroic championing of the music of Richard Wagner (performed by studio contract player Lyndon Brook), in a scene in which young Liszt is rehearsing the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser. Wagner is given far too short a shrift, and very little screen time, in the troubled and much revised script.

One of the more unusual Italian-made biopics (of which there are legion) is the risible Laugh Pagliacci (1948), starring Alida Valli and Paul Hoerbiger, Carlo Romano as the composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, and baby-faced tenor Beniamino Gigli as the singer Morelli. Gigli doubles as the tragic clown Canio in the presentation of the opera proper. It’s based on the famous story (now discredited by most scholars, I’ll have you know) of how Leoncavallo came to write the opera we know today. Who said biopics have to be based on fact?

Verdi, Vidi, Vinci

House of Ricordi (1955) is another Mediterranean import about the world renowned music-publishing firm, founded by Giulio Ricordi. Signor Ricordi rubbed elbows with some of the era’s greatest artists, including Verdi, Wagner and Puccini, as well as Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes. Directed by Carmine Gallone, a past veteran of many an operatic endeavor, it starred Elisa Cegani as Giuseppina Strepponi (Verdi’s mistress), Andrea Checchi as Ricordi, Gabriele Ferzetti as Giacomo Puccini, Fosco Giachetti as Giuseppe Verdi, Nadia Gray as soprano Giulia Grisi, and Fausto Tozzi as librettist Arrigo Boito. With the peerless voices of Tito Gobbi, Mario Del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, Giulio Neri, and Gianni Poggi, this one is given over to the joys of la bella musica italiana.

Speaking of Verdi, how can we possibly overlook one of the starriest vehicles this side of La Scala: the movie Verdi, the King of Melody, from two years prior (1953), starring Pierre Cressoy (egad, a Frenchman!) as Verdi, and featuring Gaby André (another Frenchie!!), Anna Maria Ferrero, Mario Del Monaco as tenor Francesco Tamagno (creator of the title role in Verdi’s masterpiece, Otello), and Gobbi again, playing French baritone Victor Maurel (as Iago). Oh, well… good help was hard to come by, I guess. The director was Raffaello Matarazzo, if that’s any consolation.

Coincidentally, both Gallone and Giachetti were the director and star of an earlier biographical picture about composer Giuseppe Verdi (1938). On the upside, this version featured our rotund friend Signor Gigli as the creator of the role of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto – you know, the fellow that gets to sing the familiar aria, “La donna é mobile.” On the downside, it was commissioned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, which Gigli had been closely associated with throughout Il Duce’s reign – by all accounts, a rather unholy alliance, and much to the tenor’s detriment.

Not to be left out of the running, sexy screen idol Gina Lollobrigida was a frequent guest artist in a number of opera-related features. One of Lollobrigida’s more, shall we say, “superior” efforts along this line, was her portrayal of the notorious diva Lina Cavalieri, in an Italian production of Beautiful but Dangerous (La Donna Più Bella Del Mondo, 1955). Her leading-men were the hammy Vittorio Gassman and stalwart Robert Alda, with tenor Gino Sinimberghi and the voice of Del Monaco. Helmed by an American, Robert Z. Leonard, it was photographed by Mario Bava, who went on to become the Italian horror-movie king and was credited as both writer and director of such “classic” fright flicks as Black Sabbath (1963), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Baron Blood (1972). So tell me about the opera…

Jose Ferrer in Deep in My Heart

Jose Ferrer in Deep in My Heart

Returning to Stateside, take a gander at Deep in My Heart (1954), the story of operetta composer Sigmund Romberg, with tight-lipped José Ferrer as Herr Romberg, Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, Walter Pidgeon as Broadway theater baron J.J. Shubert, Paul Henreid as the Great Ziegfeld, and Wagnerian dramatic soprano Helen Traubel in the role of Anna Mueller. This one had the makings of an epic, but sadly ‘twas not to be. It was directed by Stanley Donen (why Donen was chosen for this assignment is anybody’s guess). The film’s biggest claim to fame, however, was a rare number, “Dancing Around,” which featured Singin’ in the Rain’s Gene Kelly and his hoofer brother Fred – the only time the two siblings appeared together on film.

For a change of pace, early in his opera career the Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus (by way of the Canary Islands) starred in, and supplied the voice for, the legendary Julian Gayarré, in the eponymously titled Gayarré (1958), with Luz Marquez, Adriano Dominguez, Pastor Serrador, and Antonio Riquelme, directed by Domingo Vilademat. Strangely enough, almost 30 years later another Spaniard, the Barcelona-born José Carreras (Josep in the Catalan spelling) also made a film in which he played the same character, Gayarré. It was titled Romanza Final (The Final Romance, 1985). The less said about that title, the better.

Here’s a film that’s never been theatrically released (not is this country, anyway), about the early career of fiery conductor Arturo Toscanini. Young Toscanini (1988) was directed by Italian auteur Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Endless Love) and included an all-star cast of C. Thomas Howell as the titular maestro, Elizabeth Taylor as soprano Nadia Bulichoff (based on a real character), John Rhys-Davies (of the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Ring series) as an opera director, along with Sophie Ward, Franco Nero as Claudio Toscanini, Jean-Pierre Cassel, tenor Carlo Bergonzi as Bertini, and French actor Philippe Noiret (what, still another Frenchman?) as Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II (oh, that makes sense…). How a Frenchman, speaking Italian and dubbed into English, can play a Brazilian emperor is beyond my comprehension, but that’s filmdom for you.

The highlight of this picture is the 1886 performance of the Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s Aida, a reenactment of Toscanini’s last minute substitution and salvaging of the performance, at the Imperial Theater in Rio de Janeiro. Taylor’s halting of the production midway through the Second Act with a grandstanding speech about the evils of slavery is pure fiction – and not very convincingly done, either. Still, Liz does look every inch the pampered prima donna. Considering Zeffirelli’s international reputation in the realm of opera and film, his incompetence in the direction remains a cause célèbre. It’s a great, big white elephant, a fascinating curiosity piece in the director’s oeuvre.

But the most outlandish example of the genre has to be Ken Russell’s half-baked 1970 realization of the sex life of ballet and opera composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Titled The Music Lovers, and starring the former Dr. Kildare of sixties television fame, a stone-faced Richard Chamberlin, as Tchaikovsky, this purported “biography” is a pitiable mess of a movie. Take, for instance, the extreme close-ups, whereby every bead of sweat and spittle can be spotted and lovingly savored on-screen – how gross.

Richard Chamberlin & Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers

Richard Chamberlin & Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers

The premise behind this work sports the dubious logic that the latent homosexual composer (played by a latent homosexual actor, no doubt!) was driven mad by his inability to truly “satisfy” his long-suffering wife Nina, played to the pathological hilt by the young and lonely Glenda Jackson, who had previously perfected the art of lunacy in Sir Peter Brook’s film adaptation of the play Marat/Sade from 1967.

The ending is a real hoot, in which the forlorn Tchaikovsky commits suicide by drinking a choleric glass of water. He’s then dropped into a tub of boiling bath water in order to “cure” his disease-ridden, sore-covered body. About the only saving grace this pathetic excuse for a motion picture offers is the composer’s sublime music, conducted on the soundtrack by André Previn and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Take a bow, maestro.

Nights at the Opera

A second category of Hollywood movies features an over-abundance of operatic scenes interspersed within a dramatic framework. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Milos Forman’s delightful Amadeus (1984), adapted by Peter Shaffer from his successful stage play, which presents numerous excerpts from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. It gave viewers the erroneous impression that opera was Mozart’s primary focus, which it definitely was not. In point of fact, “Wolfie,” as he’s known in the film, was Europe’s most prolific provider of chamber and concert works, as well as chorales, church music, salon pieces, piano concertos and other solo instrumental music – you name it. But I do agree with director Forman that operas work better on the screen than mere orchestral accompaniment.

Roy Scheider in Marathon Man

Roy Scheider in Marathon Man

Although the plot of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976), which is based on William Goldman’s novel of the same name (Goldman also wrote the screenplay), has nothing whatsoever to do with opera, there is a fascinating episode connected with this film. It’s the scene at the Paris Opera house, where the aria, “Dors, o citê perverse” (“Sleep, oh perverse place”) from Massenet’s Herodiade, is tellingly sung by French-Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau. After this stirring ode is delivered, lanky CIA agent Roy Scheider, who is back in his Paris apartment (and in his underwear, with the Eiffel Tower prominently displayed), is garrotted from behind by an Oriental-looking assassin. That’s one way to get out your operatic frustrations.

There are more examples from among literally hundreds of films that not only use operatic arias and/or ensembles to divert one’s attention away from the stale story line, but also feature dozens of unusual concert venues, including in film noir — see Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, where the famous Brindisi from La Traviata helps to move the plot along — and the ever-popular gangster genre.

One of the best is Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III (1990), which uses Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana as the vehicle for Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony’s operatic debut in Sicily. Played by Al Pacino and Franc d’Ambrosio, respectively, it’s an unsubtle backdrop to the all-too-plentiful vendettas dished out in the film’s finale, where (Spoiler alert: Beware!!!) his younger sister Mary (played by Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who went on to a directing career of her own) is killed in a shootout outside the opera house. No bows there…

Another such act of gratuitous violence is perpetrated in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner and Oscar-winner Sean Connery, which features a scene with the very non-operatic Robert De Niro as notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, weeping uncontrollably at a tenor’s rendition of “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, in the same instant he’s being notified that someone he wanted murdered was given the coup de grace. The voice belongs to that of the young Mario Del Monaco from an early 1950s recording of the complete opera performed by the members of Accademia di Santa Cecilia of Rome, conducted by Alberto Erede. Heck, I should know! I owned that same recording.

Kings of Comedy

Shifting gears and genres for the moment, Norman Jewison’s wonderful comedy Moonstruck (1987) is about the operatic-like life of two families, and the spinster daughter Loretta (played by Cher, of all people) of one of them who happens to fall in love with the younger brother (Ronny, played by Nicolas Cage) of her fiancé (a rather lily livered Danny Aiello as a Mama’s boy, if you can believe that).

Nicolas Cage & Cher at the opera in Moonstruck

Nicolas Cage & Cher at the opera in Moonstruck

The story is told amid the background of an actual performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, which was filmed live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The recording used on the soundtrack is the old London/Decca one, conducted by Tullio Serafin, with Renata Tebaldi as Mimì, Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo, Ettore Bastianini as Marcello, Gianna d’Angelo as Musetta, and Cesare Siepi as Colline. There’s a marvelous scene in which Ronny invites Loretta to his apartment at 3 a.m. in order to keep her from freezing to death, all to the tune of Rodolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina,” (“Your tiny hand so cold”), a very apropos selection. The whole film is of this ilk, and boasts an understated comic performance by none other than Feodor Chaliapin Jr., the great singer’s son.

Signor Chaliapin Jr. also made an eerie guest appearance with Sean Connery and Christian Slater in 1986’s The Name of the Rose, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapted from the book by Umberto Eco. Junior’s well-nigh devilish countenance in that piece conjures up images of one of his father’s most infamous stage roles, that of Satan in Boïto’s opera Mefistofele.

Who could forget another whimsical comedy, the lovable Pretty Woman (1990) with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere as a modern-day Violetta and Alfredo, in which Verdi’s La Traviata figures prominently in the plot; or Meeting Venus (1991), with Glenn Close (voice dubbed by Kiri Te Kanawa) and Niels Arestrup (dubbed by tenor Rene Kollo), about a multinational production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the romantic complications that ensue; or the so-called comedy So Fine (1981) with Ryan O’Neal, Mariangela Melato and former James Bond villain Richard Kiel, in which the main shtick was to trash Verdi’s Otello (no, no, anything but that!).

Speaking of trashing, how about the 1935 classic A Night at the Opera, with its frenzied finale in which the stalwart Allan Jones and the lovely Kitty Carlisle attempt to sing the “Miserere” from Il Trovatore, over the overripe antics of the zany Marx Brothers. Carlisle gets to sing Nedda’s “Ballatella” from Pagliacci early on in the proceedings. Laugh, clown, laugh…

There are many other prime examples of operatic excerpts in the movies, some more extensive than others, i.e., My Geisha (1962), starring Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand with Robert Cummings as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, incorporating whole sections from Madama Butterfly; even the ersatz remake of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), which was updated to nineteenth-century Tuscany, Italy, used extensive vocal and orchestral music from the rich scores of Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi on the soundtrack. Mamma mia, that’s-a spicy meat-a-ball!!!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

One thought on “Hollywood Goes to the Opera – More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure

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