Concluding my previous blog posts about the absurdities of opera singers and opera singing in Tinsel Town (and well beyond), below are a few more examples of this egregious practice for good measure.
But What Does It Have to Do With Opera?
Everybody knows (or at least, I hope they know) that opera, as it’s been handed down to us, originated in sixteenth-century Italy — in the city of Florence, to be exact. It was supposed to be a somewhat heightened method of speech tempered with music and drama. Whether that concept has successfully carried over into modern times, or whether it’s been good or bad for music and drama as a whole, I’ll leave that to the experts to determine.
What I can say about opera is that many filmmakers and directors of Italian and/or Sicilian extraction, with Francis Ford Coppola among the more notables ones, have been obsessed by the genre from their earliest infancy. It must be in their blood. But whatever the reason, we have Coppola and his fellow paisan to thank for spicing up the medium through non-operatic methods.
One such artist has been that prolific genius of the celluloid, director Martin Scorsese. A graduate of New York University’s Film School, not only is Scorsese an inveterate movie buff, film historian and preservationist, but a scrupulously curious-minded individual whose fascination with how opera and the performing arts can be incorporated into such a seemingly incompatible form as film has led him down some fascinating paths. I’m not sure Mr. Scorsese has ever successfully reconciled these two art forms, to be honest, but he certainly gave it the old NYU college try!
Many of his most famous films preserve some aspect of the operatic art, whether it’s the music or an actual “staged” performance. Let’s say that opera (that larger than life way of expressing oneself through song), in the hands of a master movie-maker such as Marty, can make you see things in an entirely different light; while adding to our understanding of a scene or plot point without regard to its sometimes gruesome subject matter.
There’s plenty of evidence for that in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning biopic Raging Bull from 1980, which should start things off nicely for us. By emphasizing the Intermezzi from both Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana (loosely translated as “Rustic Chivalry”) and his later unsuccessful Guglielmo Ratcliff, Scorsese featured these two pieces of music: one in crisply edited, black-and-white photographed, slow-motion action shots; and the other in a facsimile of a 16mm handheld camera, to paint two pre-MTV versions of a proto-music video in several artsy-fartsy sequences.
The film, a brutal and starkly realistic look at the turbulent life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro and based on the fighter’s autobiographical book, no less), presented a foul-mouthed portrait of an overly jealous man behind the athletic shorts. Co-star Joe Pesci, in his film debut as La Motta’s equally forceful younger brother, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his comic-opera turn. Pesci got the nod again (and won!) a decade later for his similar assumption of a garrulous Mafia hood in the same director’s Goodfellas (1990). What’s so funny?
In a complete 180-degree turnaround from blood-sport and warring factions, Scorsese gave us a suitably lush picture of late nineteenth-century Manhattan high society in his underrated screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Beautifully shot and elegantly narrated by Joanne Woodward, the film in its early going takes us to a “live” Metropolitan Opera Company performance of Gounod’s Victorian-era opus, Faust.
Evidencing a deft familiarity with the era’s conventions, as specifically related to this opera (thanks to his superb research department), Scorsese’s movie accurately reconstructs an Italian-language Faust, which as incredible as it may seem the opera was actually sung in. Indeed, all the operas, including most of the German repertoire, were performed by the Metropolitan in la lingua italiana, the accepted norm for that time period.
Not to be outdone, Scorsese, in following Wharton’s lead, knew full well that most society families had the rather noxious habit of taking their marriageable-age daughters to see the perennially popular Faust, mostly for purely “moralistic” purposes, in that the lead female character of Marguérite (or Margherita in this version) meets a sad fate through her out-of-wedlock relationship with the title character.
Hey, that’s one way to keep your girls in line!
Continuing along this path, the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s were a splendid time in Italy for films of an operatic nature to be produced. The most unusual aspect, shall we say, of these quickie flicks was the sub-par lip-synching employed throughout, as well as the even more nonsensical practice of dubbing opera stars’ voices with … well, other opera stars’ voices! Appearances counted for much back then.
One of the earliest examples of the above was of Donizetti’s charming comic opera The Elixir of Love (1946), which starred the photogenic baritone Tito Gobbi as Sgt. Belcore, bass Italo Tajo as Dr. Dulcamara, and soprano Nelly Corradi as Adina — but with the chirpy singing voice of Margherita Carosio. This made little sense, as Carosio was a pretty enough figure in real life to overcome any implausibility. Hmm, maybe she was just camera shy …
A slightly “better” (relatively speaking) production was The Barber of Seville from 1947, which repeated the successful formula of Messers. Gobbi, Tajo and Corradi, but added portly tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Count Almaviva (singing and acting, by the way) to the mix, along with burly basso buffo of Vito de Taranto as Dr. Bartolo. The sets were rather crude and makeshift, to be kind, as they were borrowed direct from the Rome Opera, where the production was filmed. Talk about a tight budget!
Next up was a series of Verdi operas, including the bombastic La Forza del Destino (1947), with Gobbi, bass Giulio Neri, and Corradi again. This time around, Corradi was dubbed by dramatic soprano Caterina Mancini. Tenor Gino Sinimberghi appeared as Don Alvaro, but was voiced by Galliano Masini. Go figure! An even better production of Rigoletto (1946) starred our old friend Gobbi, with actress Marcella Govoni sitting in for the hugely proportioned, but vocally well-endowed coloratura Lina Pagliughi.
Golden-throated tenor Mario Filippeschi emoted onscreen, while his own sterling tones (described by his baritone colleague, Signor Gobbi, as “a splendid Duke with a ringing voice and smilingly sardonic appearance”) sang the life out of “La donna é mobile.” Mamma mia! According to Gobbi, the entire film was shot on the stage of the Rome Opera House in a span of 14 days. Always a quickie, never a longie!
Two films — one a comedy and one a tragedy — were released in 1948. Let’s start with the tragedy first: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or, as it’s known in the ersatz American translation, Love of a Clown. Again, we have Tito Gobbi acting the part of Tonio, while singing both Tonio and Silvio, the soprano’s love interest. A young (and I do mean YOUNG) Gina Lollobrigida appeared as Nedda. Stay with me now, for this is going to be a real mishmash. Gina was dubbed by soprano Onelia Fineschi. Her lover, Silvio, which we already know from the above was voiced by Signor Gobbi, was acted by … you guessed it, Signor Gobbi.
All right, so far so good. Here comes the funny part (funny as in, “What the …?”). Canio, the main clown (i.e., Pagliaccio), was sung by tenor Galliano Masini. You remember him! He sang in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Well, then, the actor playing Canio was none other than … are you ready for it? Baritone Afro Poli! (Sure, why not?) Rounding out the ensemble was tenor Gino Sinimberghi, now SINGING the part of Beppe, but PLAYED on the screen by … an ACTOR! And the actor’s name is? The envelope, please: Filippo Morucci. (WHO???) You got all that?
Okay, so what about the second flick? After the above comedy of errors, not even Rossini’s enchanting La Cenerentola, the Italian version of the Cinderella story, could bring as big a smile to one’s face as what transpired with Pagliacci — oh, excuse me: Love of a Clown. Nevertheless, the role of Cinderella was played onscreen by Lori Landi (whoever she was). She was dubbed by the luscious-voiced mezzo Fedora Barbieri, along with basses Enrico Formichi and Vito de Taranto. The most memorable feature of this particular production was the sumptuously filmed locations, which included the Royal Palaces of Monza and Turin in Italy.
Here’s an interesting variant. The late composer, librettist, director and producer Gian-Carlo Menotti — the man responsible for the annual Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds — directed a film version of his own opera, The Medium (1950), in his native Italy. At the time, it was considered opera’s first excursion into film noir and Italian neo-realist territory. American contralto Marie Powers gave a powerful performance of the title role, with a young Anna Maria Alberghetti as Monica, and Leo Coleman in the mute role of Toby.
The finale, where Powers mistakes Coleman for one of her phantoms and shoots him dead, is full of religious iconography and punctuated by funereal chords in the orchestra. Seldom has a theater piece so transcended its operatic origins to become a full-fledged film product on its own. For the movie, Menotti expanded his opera to 80 minutes from its original one-hour running time. Tick … tick … tick …
Hang in there. Only two more to go!
Actress and singer Franca Duval, the mammoth-voiced tenor Franco Corelli (he of the mighty thighs and endless high notes), and jack-of-all-operatic-trades baritone Afro Poli, appeared together in Puccini’s Tosca (1956). The gorgeous Duval was sung on the soundtrack by aging diva Maria Caniglia. Corelli sung for Corelli (now there’s a novelty), while his good friend and fellow singing-actor Gian Giacomo Guelfi dubbed in the part of Baron Scarpia. The whole film was spoiled by an extremely intrusive English narration. Stop the music, stop the music!
And now for the piece de résistance! A famous (or infamous) 1954 Technicolor-film version of Verdi’s Aida that starred actress Sophia Loren at the very beginning of her career. In case you were wondering, the role was actually sung by the lirica spinta Renata Tebaldi. Lois Maxwell — the future Miss Moneypenny for all those early James Bond movies, and the brunt of Sean Connery’s puns — acted the part of Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Lest you thought that Lois was capable of assuming the strenuous vocal aspects of this part, think again: the famed mezzo Ebe Stignani sang Amneris on the soundtrack.
Our tenor hero Radames was lip-synched by an immobile actor named Luciano Della Marra. Tenor Giuseppe Campora sang for him, although the tenor was severely over-parted. Afro Poli was the Amonasro, but voiced by the very capable Gino Bechi, while Antonio Cassinelli played Ramfis the High Priest; his voice (you knew he wasn’t going to do his own singing, now, didn’t you?) was dubbed by the noble bass of Giulio Neri. The whole show was directed by Clemente Fracassi. Unfortunately, Verdi’s most popular opera was trimmed down to about 90 minutes. Not a good day for us purists.
Cartoon Frolics and Puppet Shows
At around the same time as those Italian opera productions were making headway around the globe, Warner Brothers got into the act by releasing three unusual theatrical shorts during the heyday of animated features.
The first was “Long-Haired Hare” from 1949. With musical direction by Carl W. Stalling, it featured our favorite cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny in a raging battle with a smarmy baritone named Giovanni Jones (“That’s the nice fat opera singer”).
The second, “The Rabbit of Seville,” released in 1950, was an animated spoof of Rossini’s opera that used the work’s world-renowned overture to produce a mini-opera in itself. Musical direction was again provided by the classical music-loving Mr. Stalling. This one had Bugs and a perpetually flustered Elmer Fudd running around the stage trying to top each other in mayhem.
The last, and probably one of the finest animated masterpieces from this period, is “What’s Opera, Doc?” from 1957. A thoroughly hilarious takeoff on Wagner and the Ring cycle operas, this marvelous (and exceedingly expressionistic) short used music from The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and a song, “Return My Love,” with lyrics by Michael Maltese, to fulfill our operatic needs. The musical direction was by Milt Franklyn.
It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and a highpoint for the studio — especially when Elmer Fudd expresses his undying love for the German “diva” Bugs Bunny: “Oh, Bwunnhilde, be my wove!” Oy vey, it’s enough to make one swear off opera for good! One can still feel its influence in the 2009 release of The Secret of Kells, an Irish, French and Belgian-produced feature, beautifully rendered in brilliantly colored backgrounds and art work. (And “that’s all, folks!”)
And now, for a simply delightful change of pace, we have another certifiable cult favorite: the stop-motion musical adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel from 1954. Revolutionary in pioneering electronic techniques, and a prototype for later CGI and stop-motion work by the likes of Henry Selick, Tim Burton and Travis Knight of Laika Studios, this film was aimed squarely at the kiddie market.
Based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, it boasted the voice of famed lecturer, singer and comedian Anna Russell as Rosina Dainty Lips, that irksome child-eating Witch who gets to ride her broom around a candy-colored set. Broadway’s Mildred Dunnock, who acted in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, voiced the part of H & G’s Stepmother. As far as pushing the technology of the medium goes, this puppet-based “toon” earned its stripes in the visual effects department with (ahem) flying colors. Produced and directed by Michael Myerberg.
I Want My MTV – Not!
As anyone who’s ever lived through the eighties and nineties will tell you, it was the age of Music Television, or MTV for short (not anymore it isn’t). Remember the catch-phrase, “I Want My MTV” when music videos were all the rage? — at least, up until the start of the new millennium. That’s when Reality TV took over, thanks ever so much to a prolonged writers’ strike. We’re still paying the price for that one.
In any case, I can wholeheartedly recommend tenor Neil Shicoff’s MTV-like video performance from 2005 of the plaintive aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from the grandest of French grand operas, La Juive (“The Jewess”), by Fromental Halévy. Directed by television and movie veteran Sidney Lumet (now there’s an odd choice), Shicoff appears as Eleazar, the Jewess Rachel’s father, and emotes convincingly in his Jewish rabbi garb.
In addition to being a full-throated American tenor, Shicoff was also a full-throated Jewish cantor on the side. Significantly, his stirring rendition of this difficult piece, a favorite of Enrico Caruso’s, was in homage to the late tenor Richard Tucker, also a cantor, but who never got to sing the role at the Metropolitan Opera House, his home for nearly 30 years. If anything, Shicoff knocks this one out of the ballpark, so fiercely determined was he to express the full gamut of emotions.
The video is included on the DVD edition of the complete opera, released by Deutsche Grammophon and performed live by the Vienna State Opera. You’ll want to get your hands on this one quick, as it’s destined to become a classic.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes