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Opera Lite: Opera at the Movies

by Borderstan.com — January 19, 2010 at 9:30 am 0

Borderstan Movie Fan movie reviews Mary Burgan

This week Mary Burgan reviews movies with operatic themes.

by Mary Burgan

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan reviews movies with an operatic theme or twist.  Her column runs every two weeks and previous reviews are at the bottom of this column.

Two Saturdays ago, I went to a movie house to view the live HD broadcast of Richard Strauss’s bittersweet opera Der Rosenkavalier from the Metropolitan Opera. In addition, I went to Carmen last Saturday.

I had to book tickets for both performances at a theater way out of town. All the theaters within Metro distance were sold out–not only for the Saturday matinee, but for the later “encore” Wednesday evening!

Note: Tickets for the last three operas of this season will sell out quickly, so hurry to find a seat.

At $20 a shot, tickets for opera at the movies are a bit pricy but a lot cheaper than going to New York to see a performance. Furthermore, the Met broadcasts usually have all-star casts, and opera lovers follow their favorites as fervently as groupies follow rock stars. Rosenkavalier was special because it starred Renée Fleming, a brilliant star in the opera firmament. Carmen featured the Latvian singer, Elīna Garanča, a magical presence on the screen–very beautiful and a wonderful singer. Then there are the close-ups, which you cannot get in an opera house (though with some singers, you do not really want to get any closer).

There was sex and there was dancing in Carmen which may be why it is one of the most popular operas of all. One notable movie based on Carmen was made in 1954. This African-American Carmen Jones features the voice of a young Marilyn Horne dubbed in for Dorothy Dandridge in the title role; LeVern Hutcherson sang for Harry Belafonte as Don Jose. Pearl Bailey did not need any dubbing and delivered a rousing version of the Second Act Gypsy Song, “Beat Out that Rhythm on the Drum,” which has since become a standard jazz cover.

When Carmen Jones was released, no black singer had ever sung at the Met. In 1955, Marian Anderson was nearing the end of her career but appeared there for the first and last time in the “colored” role of a gypsy in Verdi’s Masked Ball. That same year, Lyontine Price appeared as Tosca on the NBC opera broadcast. After that, no more color barrier in opera… and no more dubbing.

There have been forgettable films that featured operatic singers like Deanna Durbin, Kathryn Grayson, Mario Lanza, and even Luciano Pavarotti belting out arias from opera’s greatest hits. However, to get the real appeal of opera, you have to think of its music as intrinsic to the action. Even in Laurel and Hardy’s 1936 take-off on Michael Balfe’s long-forgotten operetta, The Bohemian Girl, tunes such as, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” give some color to all the shenanigans.

The thrill that devotees value in the combination of passion, plot, and expressive singing is evident in a number of non-operatic dramas that show the impact of famous operas on their characters. One of the most popular has been Moonstruck (1987). In that film, Nicholas Cage insists that Cher go to Puccini’s La Bohème with him. They see Mimi die of T.B. and Cher is blown away. Her reaction shows her to be passionately discerning and therefore a true match for Nicolas Cage.

Another famous, and parallel, case is the movie, Pretty Woman (1990). In one key episode, Julia Roberts is flown to San Francisco by her tutorial lover, Richard Gere, to see La Traviata–an opera about a Parisian courtesan who also dies of T.B. Julia’s passionate response to Verdi’s opera impresses Gere so much that at the last moment, he decides to make her respectable.

There are other movie scenes of love and loss that are intensified by operatic music played at critical moments. I think of Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), when the character played by  Peter Finch consoles himself with a wonderful Mozart trio from Cosi fan Tutti. And a single stunning aria, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” by the lesser-known composer, Alfredo Catalani, marks the emotional trajectories of three other excellent films: the French thriller, Diva (1981), Philadelphia (1993), and A Serious Man (in theaters now).

Finally, there is Richard Wagner’s music in Apocalypse Now (1979). One of its most memorable scenes features the strains of the Ride of the Valkyries in the background as helicopters move down the beach to unload their napalm in Vietnam. That unforgettable episode reminds us that, “It ain’t over til the fat lady sings.”

Opera lovers would add, “It ain’t even started! And the lady’s not so fat anymore, either.”

Other Reviews by Borderstan Movie Fan

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