‘Carmen’ screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, November 26th at 3:00 P.M. and Monday, November 28th at 6:30 P.M.
‘Tosca’ will be screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center Saturday, December 3rd at 3:00 P.M. and Thursday, December 8th at 6:00 P.M.
Richard Wagner used the word gesamkunstwerk to describe what he was trying to do with opera – combine all of the fine arts: music (instrumental and vocal), theater (live performance and acting), architecture, painting, fashion and sculpture (building ideal theaters for opera, and creating scenery, lighting and costuming thereof that aspired to far more than just the criteria of the stories). Wagner thought opera had devolved into vocal showboating, carnival-level stage tricks and silly, inconsequential stories and librettos, instead of aspiring to truly profound works of the combined arts.
The things that are singular about opera – the struggle to both act, and yet sing, naturalistically, creating credible characters while adhering to the technical and structural demands of the musical forms; the lush scale of the environments and the casts of hundreds; the overall scale of the endeavor presented (crucially) to a live audience – lend themselves to the qualities of film, and frustrate and confound filmmakers trying to capture those qualities on celluloid. The massive frame of the theater proscenium is almost impossible to translate in filmed composition, but when you reduce the narrative activities of opera into medium-and-close-up shots, you lose a great deal of the inherent grandeur. If you lose the stage altogether and place the sung stories into realistic real-world settings, you require an extraordinary suspension of disbelief from your audience, and the performers lose that intangible give-and-take that a live audience provides. Filming any opera, therefore, requires a painstaking strategy of keeping you onstage, constantly reminding you of the in-house audience that’s being played to, while delineating shots that emphasize the story mechanics and the relationships between characters. If you’re filming an actual performance, the camera is locked into a parallel line to the front edge of the stage – even with various lenses and zoom capabilities, you’re only given 120˚ – 150˚ of sightline with which to describe the action, and shooting a separate series of insert shots in an empty theater, without an audience being blocked by cameras on stage, creates real logistical problems for the performers, who must create time within already rigorous schedules to accommodate the project, without the full orchestra, and without the very audience they draw so much of their energy from.
Film, though, is, ironically, an amazing way to illustrate exactly how much work it takes to pull off an opera. When people tell me they have lots of trouble with modern jazz, I always tell them ‘don’t just listen to it in your living room – go see them perform it live. See the physical rigor of the playing, see the eye-to-eye communication between the players, see how much energy is exchanged between the performers and the audience – it’ll make a lot more sense to your ears and brain then.’ Filmed close-ups of opera performers are equally revealing – the physicalities of gesture, expression and movement that an acted character requires within the stage picture, combined with the extraordinary physical demands of filling the airspace of a large theater with your singing voice (microphone assistance notwithstanding); it’s a revelatory perspective you just can’t get from the fourteenth row, let alone the balconies. So using film to document performances is effective, but how can one use film as a medium to actually present opera first-hand?
PBS live television broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and other companies, have been consistently good within these limited parameters, and digital projections of those performances in movie theaters are gaining in popularity. The Siskel Film Center is featuring a series of filmed performances of operas and ballets that have been acquired by a company called IndieFilmNet, in the hopes that they can take advantage of the burgeoning market of theatrical digital projection to serve a genre that large Hollywood-ish distributors don’t see much of a profitable market in.
The Film Center’s first offering is Bizet’s Carmen, in a 2009 performance at Paris’ Opéra Comique. Directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Adrian Noble, it’s a surprisingly well-acted performance, featuring a fair amount of active and adroit physicality from its lead singers – Anna Caterina Antonacci as the smolderingly passionate, willful and mercurial Carmen; Jonas Kauffman as Don José, who navigates a flood of dilemmas over givers and recipients of love, and comrades and rivals in manhood; and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Escamillo, the strutting bullfighter who competes with Don José for the favors of the bewitching Carmen. It’s a terrific performance of the opera, but there are lots of events that occur within crowd scenes, and the camera seems to be trapped in that linear viewpoint, chopping up the horizontal stage compositions. Later duets, trios and small-group scenes (especially Carmen’s scene with the smugglers, stretched but not strained) fare better, but the benefits here are far more about the wonderful performances and singing than in the translation from stage to film.
The filmed 2008 performance of Puccini’s Tosca, at the Teatro Antico of Taormina, is more engaging cinematically, assisted by its smaller cast and shorter length. It’s one of the most performed operas, in large part because of its adherence to the efficient plot; there are few compositional or staging flourishes that distract from the story itself. The painter Mario Cavaradossi (Marcello Giordani )must compromise the love affair he’s having with the beautiful Florio Tosca (Martina Serafin) in order to assist an escaped political-prisoner comrade, Angelotti (Alessandro Guerzoni). The imperious and evil police commissioner Scarpia (Renato Bruson) uses Tosca’s love for Cavaradossi to persuade her to betray him and reveal Angelotti’s hiding place. Now Scarpia can crush an old enemy, execute Cavaradossi, and fulfill his own lust for Tosca. Admirably sung and performed, with a more intimate variety in the camera shots, a number of us at the screening were slightly disappointed at the digital sound mix; Serafin’s muscular high tones sounded overcompressed and slightly tinny, and the percussive lows of the orchestration were pretty thumpy. But those shortcomings are worth overlooking for Renato Bruson’s impressive Scarpia – if it’s possible for a villain to be both rodent-like and magisterial, then Bruson delivers.
The director here is Enrico Castiglione, and the series features a number of his filmed productions, including a 2009 ‘Aida’ and a 2010 ‘Turandot.’ It’ll be interesting to see how he deals with those much larger-scale works on film, but the ‘Tosca’ evidence is promising.