OPERA NEWS - Viewpoint: Adverse Conditions
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Viewpoint: Adverse Conditions

By F. Paul Driscoll

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Olivia de Havilland in Anthony Adverse
AF archive/Alamy Stock

JOE CADAGIN'S ESSAY in this month’s OPERA NEWS, “From Screen to Stage," examines the evolving relationship between opera and the movies—a subject also touched on in Henry Stewart’s “Operapedia” column this month (see p. 14) and in Steven Jude Tietjen’s preview of Joby Talbot’s new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic film Vampyr, a commission from LA Opera.

During the golden age of Hollywood, a number of opera singers enjoyed brief spates of movie stardom: Grace Moore, Lawrence Tibbett, Lily Pons and Gladys Swarthout all had major studio contracts. But Hollywood generally delivered opera to movie audiences in small doses, broken down as “numbers” within the framework of a conventional narrative. As an opera singer on the rise in San Francisco, Jeanette MacDonald, Hollywood’s favorite classical-style soprano, sang new songs by Bronislau Kaper and Nacio Herb Brown as well as scenes from Faust; in Maytime, MacDonald joined her perennial costar Nelson Eddy in an extended sequence from a “new” opera adapted by MGM from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, The Czaritza (sic).

Another opera created in Hollywood was The Duchess of Ferrara, devised for the climactic sequence of Anthony Adverse, a 1936 epic from Warner Brothers. Olivia de Havilland, who was just nineteen years old during the production of the film, plays “Mademoiselle Georges,” the star of the Paris Opera and the favorite of Napoleon. Looking fetching in a gown designed by Milo Anderson, de Havilland offers an energetic battery of “operatic” gestures, her singing voice dubbed by Diana Gaylen. 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of Hollywood’s most distinguished composers, won his first Oscar for the score of Anthony Adverse, but the film was not one of his favorites—possibly because the risible Duchess of Ferrara was not his work. The opera-house sequences in Anthony Adverse were shot in November 1935, before Korngold started work on the film; The Duchess of Ferrara was written by Aldo Franchetti, a member of the music staff at Warners. The studio refused Korngold’s demand to have the sequences reshot, so the composer bridged the gap between Franchetti’s work and his own by employing (and improving) one of the Duchess themes in the final scene of Anthony Adversespacer 

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