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.
— F. PAUL DRISCOLL
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