A Night At The Opera (On The Silver Screen)

Jun 1, 2011

The Italian film director Luchino Visconti was also a great opera director, working with Maria Callas in some of her greatest roles. His version of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro was one of the most memorable and realistic opera productions I've ever seen.

Visconti's 1954 film Senso actually begins at the opera in Venice, near the end of the Austrian occupation in the 1860s. It's the climax of Verdi's Il Trovatore, and the famous tenor battle cry is sung directly to the audience, becoming a cue to protest the occupation.

The Italian actress Alida Valli — best known for her moving performance as Orson Welles' lover in The Third Man -- plays an Italian countess sympathetic to the protest. Early in Senso, she says to a smug Austrian officer (played by Farley Granger) that she doesn't believe people's lives should be operatic. But she's about to be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of sexual passion for Granger, who may or may not be in love with her. Tennessee Williams, the most operatic of American playwrights, is one of the screenwriters.

Visconti's mysteriously ambiguous title, Senso, means "sense," as in the five senses, sensation, sensuality or common sense. In other words, the countess' life becomes an opera, and opera becomes a metaphor for human emotion. Visconti's painful and riveting film even ends with a mad scene.

Almost the complete opposite of Senso, but even more directly about opera, is a harebrained MGM musical farce from 1946 called Two Sisters From Boston. It's also a period piece, taking place early in the 20th century. The late Kathryn Grayson plays a young woman so desperate to become an opera singer that she leaves her snobbish Boston family and, to pay for her singing lessons, gets a job in a seedy New York nightclub run by Jimmy Durante. Her bookish sister, June Allyson, comes to rescue her but ends up finding her own true calling in Durante's club. Grayson's efforts to break into an opera are hilarious, including scenes from invented operas with music by Liszt and Mendelssohn.

The real star of the film is the great Danish Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior, who, after he retired from the opera stage, proved to be a delightful comic actor in Hollywood movies. This is his second film, and he plays an opera star upstaged and enraged by Grayson's clumsy onstage intrusions. He has a devoted pet terrier, Tristan, named after one of his greatest roles; the dog follows him everywhere, including into a recording studio.

My favorite scene is a re-creation of an early recording session. Melchior is reluctantly recording the "Prize Song" from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. He sings into a horn, while someone kneeling at his feet adjusts his volume by pulling him closer to or pushing him away from the horn. When Melchior stops, a bunch of violinists rush forward to play. The punch line of the scene comes when the recording is played back. When little Tristan jumps onto the table and stares into the horn, someone remarks: "Look, his master's voice," a re-creation of the famous logo of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

I love the way Visconti takes opera seriously, as well as the way Hollywood emphasizes its silliness. Together, these films present something close to the full range of what opera can be.

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