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Cast a Wary Eye on Film and TV Operas

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Opera doesn't always translate happily to the movies or television.

For proof look no further than the 1953 film version of Verdi's "Aida" (Qualiton DVD-616). Except as an artifact of grade-D postwar Italian cinema, this DVD would do noblest service as a coaster.

Not that Sophia Loren isn't alluring in the title role. (Yes, you read that right -- Loren, in full blackface, lip-syncs the part of the Ethiopian princess to the recorded voice of Renata Tebaldi.) In fact, Loren's Aida looks practically Oscar-worthy next to the Radames of Luciano Della Marra, who swans through the movie with all the dramatic urgency of a cabana boy in search of fresh towels. The rest of the actors in this statically shot, bargain-basement epic aren't much better, and even the pleasures of hearing veteran singers such as Ebe Stignani, Giuseppe Campora and Gino Bechi on the soundtrack are undone by disfiguring cuts made to the score. As a coup de grace, Qualiton uses a faded, hacked-up, intrusively English-narrated source print for its transfer.

It's instructive turning from such a botched opera film to another recent DVD release: A live 1961 performance of Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," featuring noted Italian singers of the day guest-starring in a Tokyo stage production with Japan's NHK Symphony and Chorus (VAI-4421). Truth be told, the hokey two-dimensional sets seen here aren't all that different from what's on view in "Aida," and this earthy-looking cast of actual singers feels authentic in a way their screen-acting counterparts don't. It's gratifying to encounter soprano Gabriella Tucci and baritone Aldo Protti -- two consistently underrated performers -- who here display handsome sound, sure technique and a level of dramatic involvement they're rarely credited with.

But the night belongs to the notoriously unsubtle, gloriously unbuckled Mario del Monaco. A critic once wrote of del Monaco, "For this singer, life begins at forte." True enough -- but what a forte! Virile and brazen of tone, with a swagger to his phrasing and trumpeting high notes, del Monaco owned dramatic-tenor roles such as the wife-murdering Canio in "Pagliacci." There's a perverse fascination watching the athletic brinksmanship involved in del Monaco's singing -- feet planted, chest thrust forward, head thrown back and clarion notes pealing forth.

Even more entertaining, though, is the acting of the Italian cast -- a vocabulary of stock gestures and Mediterranean expressivity that turns the production into an amalgam of street theater and silent-screen melodrama. Yet again, del Monaco stands alone. How does one describe what he does? Italian kabuki? Semaphoric psychodrama? On one level, all the ritualized arm movements and wild-eyed stares seem laughable relics of 19th-century theater. But somewhere deep under that surface physicality there's a core of truth: Del Monaco gets this guy, and it's scary. His performance of the aria "Vesti la giubba" may well be the most histrionic you'll see. But it also touches the music's elemental power -- vocal and theatrical -- more vividly than any other performance I've witnessed.

The acting is a lot subtler -- more filmlike, if you will -- in a 2006 Salzburg Festival staging of Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" (Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4245), but director Claus Guth's angst-filled deconstruction packs a wallop just the same. Reimagined as a study of marital dysfunction, this "Figaro" evokes the deep well of sadness and ripple of forlorn comedy found in the best films of Ingmar Bergman (an influence Guth cites in a documentary on the DVD). Those who like Mozart for his surface froth will hate this production. Those seeking a revelatory evening of theater that taps the score's melancholy undercurrents -- shot by video-director Brian Large to communicate a palpable sense of live stage-performance -- will find themselves haunted by Guth's vision.

All the production elements are cut from the same cloth -- Christian Schmidt's peeling, hospital-white sets and elegantly straitjacketing 1920s costumes; Nikolaus Harnoncourt's probing, expansively paced conducting; and, not least, the casting of some dramatically compelling singers. If focus most consistently rests on Anna Netrebko's Susanna and Dorothea Roschmann's Countess, credit is due not only to their ravishing voices and canny acting but also to Guth's eye-opening decision to have both characters actually carrying on the sexual affairs they're accused of having. Bo Skovhus's Count, too, emerges as a fascinatingly conflicted character -- sheepish when not bullying, hormone-driven yet visibly nauseous over his infidelities. Nothing is taken for granted about these characters; all are conceived with a fresh eye and a sharp theatrical instinct.

The title nymphet in Richard Strauss's "Salome" also gets an effective overhaul in a legendary 1974 German television film of the opera (Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4339). This is not Salome as some cliched seductress or monster but as a damaged and unworldly teenager. As directed by Gotz Friedrich, and embodied by soprano Teresa Stratas -- one of the finest singing actors of her generation -- this Salome is essentially girlish and vulnerable, with a willful streak born of parental abuse. With her voice at its most radiant, Stratas is magnetic in the single-minded concentration of her acting. True, the film's lip-syncing (to the singers' own voices), frees up the performers for more nuanced interpretation. But watch even those moments when Stratas is not singing -- the fear and wonder in her reaction to first seeing Jokanaan (John the Baptist), her confused, unmistakably sexual reaction after their first meeting, the unbearable intimacy and creeping psychosis in her scene with his severed head.

Friedrich's direction of the cameras is as telling as his work with Stratas. The fluid shifting of perspectives, tightly framed two-shots of Salome and her mother, Herodias (a high-camp, high-dudgeon performance by the late, great Astrid Varnay), fetishized close-ups of Jokanaan, and intuitive balancing of naturalism and expressionism illuminate this sweaty work in every shot. Stage-bound sets and some big-face acting by a few supporting players fade into insignificance within the overall storytelling, and we are left to marvel at the furious invention in the score (under Karl Bohm's magisterial baton) and the near-definitive performance at the center of the work.

This DVD is proof positive that the demands of stage and screen needn't be incompatible. In the right hands they can produce incomparable thrills together.

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