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'Callas Forever': Adulation of a Fading Goddess

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page C01

"Callas Forever," Franco Zeffirelli's meditation on the last days of Maria Callas, goes far deeper into one man's opera-diva fetish than most people will want to follow. One can't call it a loving tribute because the love is mostly narcissistic, and despite extended excerpts of some of Callas's greatest performances, it's not really about Callas or the artistry of the great soprano.

No, this is a film about Franco Zeffirelli, about how much he loves Maria, about how frustrating it is to be an opera director when singers have so many flesh-and-blood imperfections. "Callas Forever" is equal parts alluring (the acting is magnificent) and creepy.

Jeremy Irons delivers another great performance in "Callas Forever." (Reuters)

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Zeffirelli begins his film in 1977, the year of Callas's death at age 53. The once-great singer has gone into Garboesque seclusion, holed up in an opulent Paris apartment, spending her evenings like so many serious opera lovers: drinking, popping pills and lip-synching to Maria Callas records. She is haunted by the loss of identity that has come with the loss of her singing voice and betrayal by her beloved Aristotle Onassis (who dumped her for Jackie). She is a shell.

Enter Larry Kelly, a gay English impresario who (like Zeffirelli in real life) worked with Callas and befriended her. Larry determines to rescue the singer from her isolation by involving her in a scheme to film her miming her great roles. They settle on Bizet's "Carmen," and, slowly but steadily, Callas emerges and returns to her monstrous old self: bossy and manipulative, petty and abusive, sexy and smoldering. Larry, who is always surrounded by a posse of Adonises, couldn't be happier. But alas, Maria comes to her senses and realizes that inserting a recording of her voice from its glory days into a new film would be essentially a lie, and that even if the intention isn't to deceive the public, her own artistic integrity demands pulling the plug on the project.

So it's a film about filming Callas, in which the central ethical dilemma is about repackaging old art -- the kind of thing that might haunt, say, a theatrical director famous for gussying up the classics. We are deep in the thickets of iconomania, but lest newcomers to Callas think this is just crazy excess, it's worth pointing out that "Callas Forever" is one among several Frankenstein projects attempting to revivify the dead goddess. Terrence McNally has written at least two plays that are centered on her, and the Paris production of one of them -- "The Master Class" -- starred Fanny Ardant, who does a dazzling job of once again portraying Callas in the movie. There have also been books and documentaries (at least four), academic texts (the Callas-as-gay-icon thing got rigorously theorized in the 1990s), scads of reissued recordings and -- to be fair -- music critics whose entire careers have basically been about Callas torch-carrying.

So Zeffirelli isn't in good company, but he's definitely in company. And while the idea of filming Callas in her great roles is a Zeffirelli plot device, the director gets the basics of her last days down right. Her stage career had ground to a halt as her voice declined in the 1960s, and she mostly disappeared from the public except for a series of legendary master classes at Juilliard in the early 1970s and some disastrous final concerts in 1973. She died of a heart attack, perhaps hastened by substance abuse, four years later. For some fans, her decline and death only added an element of martyrdom to her artistic aura.

Which makes the fantasy of rescuing her from herself so strange. The cult of Callas demands she die for all of us. By making a film that might better be called "The Last Temptation of Maria," Zeffirelli puts himself in the unappointed position of supreme pontiff among Callas worshipers -- allowed to touch the sacred body and conduct the final sacrifice. That's the creepy part. The alluring part is that playing the role of Larry, the Zeffirelli cipher (the character and the director share a taste for vulgarity), is Jeremy Irons, who gives vital depth to the part.

So as the film becomes ever more about Zeffirelli's self-aggrandizing fantasy of Maria, it also becomes ever more a vehicle for the magnificent acting of Irons. Add to that an enticingly plummy performance from Joan Plowright in the supporting role of an English journalist and the chance to hear Callas on a souped-up sound system, and the film is almost worth it.

Years from now, however, it won't be remembered as part of the Callas legacy, but as fodder for graduate students doing doctoral research on the aesthetic of Zeffirelli. If you want a clue to the excesses of his stagecraft (his productions for New York's Metropolitan Opera are routinely panned for their gargantuan size, cost and complexity), it's here. The core of Zeffirelli's vision is an unattainable ideal: the authenticity of live performance sealed in the perfection of film.

Callas Forever (115 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is unrated, but contains obscenity and sexual innuendo.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company