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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 


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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 


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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 


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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 


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(Performances, Tristan Kraft, Cinema) Permanent link

Last week I took advantage of the rare opportunity to watch the film components of Matthew Barney's entire Cremaster Cycle — the artist's monumental multimedia installation/performance piece consisting of sculpture, photography, installation and film.

The five films, which were being screened at Manhattan's IFC Center, almost defy written description: there are surreal creatures, abstract and remote settings, and a loose, coming-of-age plot to the cycle, something like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Narnia. Music is an integral part of the cycle, and composer Jonathan Bepler has scored nearly every moment of it. In Cremaster 3, the protagonist (played by Barney) rigs an elevator shaft in the Chrysler building as a harp — leaving the other empty shafts as drones — which a Gaelic-singing maître d’ (played by Paul Brady) uses to accompany himself.

I saw the cycles in order by title (Cremasters 1 through 5 were filmed in 1996, 1999, 2002, 1995, 1997, respectively). This is an occupational hazard, admittedly, but as I watched the films, I wondered what it would be like if Barney were to direct an opera. Cremaster 5 offered the answer to that question: Barney set most of the film inside Budapest’s State Opera House, with the Budapest Philharmonic playing in the pit, while a costumed climber (again played by Barney) climbs up, across and down the proscenium, as former Bond-girl Ursula Andress "sings" from the theater’s Royal Box. (Soprano Adrienne Csengery does the actual singing.)

The result, however, is a bit of a letdown. Bepler, who is a talented orchestral composer, fails to create much variation in the vocal parts. Where he is otherwise capable of creating spontaneous rhythmic texture, he provides Csengery with what seems like one endless legato phrase, with a tepid orchestration underneath. She is less than pleasant to listen to: her intonation is spotty and she sings with one of the widest vibratos around. Andress, and her accompanying twin sprites, perform a campy lip-syncing job to go along with it.

With the proliferation of operas in high definition, it’s possible to imagine Barney directing an opera, without omitting any of the media he synthesizes so well. Judging by the ending of Cremaster 5, I’d say the director may be ready to direct Rusalka.

– Tristan Kraft

More information can be found at, the IFC Center and the fan-site Cremaster Fanatic, where one can see Barney and family sitting at the MOMA’s Marina Abramović exhibit, or the avant-garde artist modeling for Macy's in the late 1980's.

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