Editor's Desk

Diddling While Rome Burns

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Cinema, Crossover) Permanent link

For a filmmaker who has repeatedly taken as his subject the jumbled, chaotic world of artists, Woody Allen has amazingly little of any freshness or depth to say about the creative life. I started to get nervous back in 1978, when he unveiled Interiors, his drama about a New York family of people obsessed with achieving creative perfection and always feeling that they fall short of it. The dialogue seemed so stilted and self-conscious that at times I thought Allen was offering up a parody of Bergmanesque angst. Since then, with the exception of 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, which revealed some rather funny and touching truths about another New York family of artists, he's been spinning his wheels. The dramatic situations he sets up have a peculiarly artificial scent about them, like one of those model apartments where you can smell the newness of the carpeting and furniture. He deals in types and clichéd situations, and no matter how cleverly certain scenes are brought off, everything feels too worked out and predictable. (This was true to an extent even in Hannah and Her Sisters; the only scene that genuinely surprised me was the one in which Maureen O'Sullivan poured out her drunken resentment of her husband, played by Lloyd Nolan.) 

I was going to skip Allen's new film, To Rome with Love. I didn't, for the simple reason that I was drawn by the opera elements in the plot. Allen plays Jerry, an avant-garde stage director who has been reviled for tampering with the classics. (One of his famous productions is a Rigoletto with everyone dressed as white mice — a detail that, like practically everything else in the film, isn't nearly as funny as it's meant to be). Jerry and his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), travel to Rome to meet the Italian man their daughter plans to marry. The boy's father is an undertaker named Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato). When Giancarlo steps into the shower and begins singing, Jerry, standing outside in the hallway, hears evidence of a remarkable voice, and Jerry hectors him to turn pro. The trouble is that Giancarlo can't sing well except when he's in the shower: when Jerry organizes an audition for him in front of a group of top-flight opera managers, Giancarlo blows it completely. Jerry comes up with a solution: recitals and stage productions will be engineered so that he can sing while showering. The gag is mildly amusing the first time but less so in its many repetitions. And really, the whole conceit of the talented amateur being terrified to perform in the professional arena is old-hat. (Remember Marilyn Horne guesting on TV's The Odd Couple, as the opera singer who couldn't open her mouth unless her pal Oscar, played by Jack Klugman, was in the room?) Allen skips lightly over the opera material as if pleased just to show us another facet of his cultural fluency; he never really gets into it at all — never does anything truly inventive with it. 

The main raisons d'être for To Rome with Love are Darius Khondji's lovely, terra-cotta-tinged scenes of Rome, the funny individual moments contributed by Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni and Judy Davis and the film's biggest surprise — the relaxed, appealing screen presence of Fabio Armiliato. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

A Workday at the Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Cinema) Permanent link
In the course of researching an article for OPERA NEWS, I was obliged to spend part of a recent workday watching excerpts from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera on YouTube. (And before you ask, the answer is no — I would not care to switch jobs with you, or anyone else in the world.)
 
In sending a link to the big opera-house scene to a colleague, I started to write "Here's Il Trovatore as you'll never see it anywhere else" — but it suddenly dawned on me that the way things are headed in the opera world, the indignities heaped on Verdi's masterwork in that movie by Groucho, Harpo and friends are as nothing compared with some of the purportedly serious attempts of modern régisseurs to "rethink" beloved repertory staples. Why not a railway station, a fruit cart or a battleship as a fresher and more novel backdrop to the plot than the old-fashioned idea of a Gypsy camp? Why not interpolate "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" into the overture, as a more currently recognizable and "relevant" indication of the kind of nationalist fervor the works of Verdi evoked in their time?
 
Like the old radio team Bob & Ray, who predicted the future with their then-absurdist commercials for the post office, perhaps the Marx Brothers weren't poking fun at opera at all: perhaps they were just ahead of their time. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Bootlegger's Blues

(Observations, Tristan Kraft, Cinema, Soundtracks) Permanent link
Blogs Boardwalk Empire LG 10110
Paz de la Huerta and Anthony Laciura in Martin Scorsese's
Boardwalk Empire
Abbot Genser/HBO

Many opera fans probably first took note of director Martin Scorsese's taste in opera with Raging Bull, which employed Cavalleria Rusticana's Intermezzo as the soundtrack to its opening credits. Likewise, his 1993 period piece, The Age of Innocence — based on the novel by Edith Wharton — opened on a tableau of Gounod's Faust playing at the New York Academy of Music. In 2006, Scorsese had Jack Nicholson — portraying Irish-American mob boss Frank Costello in The Departed — throw a handful of cocaine at a prostitute, while the sextet from Lucia, "Chi mi frena in tal momento?" played in the background. (The tune is heard later in the movie as Costello's ringtone.)

Scorsese yet again demonstrated his interest in opera with Monday night's premiere of Boardwalk Empire, HBO's new drama about the woes of Prohibition in Atlantic City. Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terence Winter have assembled a fairly huge cast for the twelve-episode show, including Metropolitan Opera character-tenor Anthony Laciura. One thing is already apparent: the breadth of talent on the show ranges widely. Laciura, all opera-industry bias aside, is one of the most capable actors, and Paz de la Huerta is one of the least.

In a sequence at the end of the episode, two characters are knocked-off while Cavalleria Rusticana's "O Lola, ch'ai di latti"   plays in the background. One actor stands at the gramophone when the hit comes, and moments later his blood decorates the famous picture of Caruso, mid-drum-strike, dressed as Pagliaccio. Indeed, la commedia è finita. spacer 

TRISTAN KRAFT

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Small World

(News, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Live in HD) Permanent link

This week, the "Arts, Briefly" section of The New York Times included the rather offhand announcement that the Met "recently reached an agreement with the authorities at the Cairo Opera House to show productions there this season." Audiences in distant Cairo will now be privy (via the company's series of Live in HD transmissions) to a whole slew of performances taking place on the Met stage even as they watch.

We take such technological marvels in stride nowadays, but what, one wonders, would Verdi have made of this development? Back in 1871, it took endless, painstaking negotiations to arrange for the world premiere of his Aida at Cairo's Khedivial Opera House, and in the event the proposed January opening fell victim to the Franco–Prussian War, which trapped the sets and costumes (not to mention the scenarist, Auguste Mariette) in Paris. Verdi had to wait another eleven months before the project came to fruition, and it took place without the composer in attendance, as he had decided the trip was too arduous to be worthwhile.

Could any of the participants in that cultural milestone for Cairo have imagined that one day whole seasons of opera from another continent could be wafted over the airwaves to Egyptian shores? spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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Sounds of Love

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Cinema, Listening, John Adams, Soundtracks) Permanent link

Luca Guadagnino's film Io Sono l’Amore, which is being billed in the U.S. as I Am Love, is an enchanting consideration of love in a modern Italian world.

The movie is a delight for the senses, and not just because of the shots of the ancient-seeming, lavishly appointed villas. The director cobbled together preexisting music composed by John Adams to create the film score. The results are anything but your typical, sentimental movie-music. The selections, including "The Chairman Dances" and excerpts from Harmonielehre, have the clear, ringing and invigorating sounds that mark Adams's early-career minimalist compositions — music that seems to awaken the movie's heroine, played by the magnificent Tilda Swinton, to the life-affirming power of love.

Below, Swinton calls it Adams's "unedited" sound, which is a nice way to put it. spacer 

—OUSSAMA ZAHR

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The Glass Mountain

(Observations, Cinema, F. Paul Driscoll, Nino Rota) Permanent link
Blog Images Glass Mountain DVD COver 82310  

Among my guilty pleasures are movies about opera — that is, film that feature opera in the plotline as opposed to movies of operas, such as the Zeffirelli Otello, or the Francesco Rosi Carmen, which despite their many virtues are somehow never as satisfying as an opera-house performance. (Captures of live performances, such as the Met's HD presentations, are in another, more exalted, class entirely.) What I love to watch are backstage films on the order of Serenade Mario Lanza and Licia Albanese as Otello and Desdemona! — or Interrupted Melody, which has Eleanor Parker lip-synching her way through everything from Musetta's waltz to Brünnhilde's immolation.

I recently watched a DVD of The Glass Mountain, a 1949 British film about a composer (Michael Denison) torn between his love for his genteel English bride (Dulcie Gray) and his passion for the earthy Italian girl (Valentina Cortese) who nursed him to health when he was injured in the War. The Glass Mountain was evidently very popular in the U.K., although not an international success on the level of 1948's The Red Shoes, another movie that presented a triangular love story within the context of a backstage milieu. Just as the climax of The Red Shoes was the presentation of an original ballet, the payoff in The Glass Mountain is a lengthy sequence, set in La Fenice, devoted to an original opera (or at least excerpts from an original opera) called The Glass Mountain. It's about a poor young man who loves a poor young lady but marries a rich young lady, only to have signora numero uno die and show up as a ghost at the wedding reception. The original pair of lovers are reunited when the young man plunges to his death while searching for his beloved in the mists that shroud the glass mountain of the opera's title.

The score is by the incomparable Nino Rota — the main theme is quite striking and almost impossible to forget, as is often the case with Rota's film work. The opera stars at work are soprano Elena Rizzieri, an attractive artist with a tangy sound whose work is otherwise unfamiliar to me, and the great Tito Gobbi, looking quite handsome and slim at thirty-six, sounding marvelous and handling the English-language dialogue with impressive ease. In an odd twist, Gobbi is meant to be playing himself — "Tito Gobbi of La Scala" — within the confines of a fictional story but pulls it off with complete conviction. In addition to his work as the hero of The Glass Mountain opera, Gobbi also sings a lullaby of sorts, accompanying himself on the accordion, to a group of wounded soldiers and does so with an almost indecent amount of charm.

The soundtrack for the Glass Mountain opera is conducted by Franco Ferrarra, who was later one of Riccardo Muti's teachers; the on-screen conducting is handled with painful clumsiness by actor Michael Denison, who plays the conflicted composer at the center of the drama's love triangle. Despite Valentina Cortese's sympathetic performance as the "other woman," the movie's stiff-upper-lip love triangle is mightily silly stuff. What makes the film of interest today is Gobbi and Rota's haunting music; the opera excerpts leave one wondering what the full score sounds like.

I watched the film on a VCI DVD that had poor sound — most noticeable in the disc's "extra," a 1939 cartoon featuring egrets meandering through a moonlit waterscape to the strains of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." But a YouTube clip of Gobbi at work in The Glass Mountain has been posted below that is well worth a look. spacer 

— F. PAUL DRISCOLL

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3