When Opera Takes to the Screen
Jameux, Dominique, UNESCO Courier
When opera takes to the screen
ALTHOUGH opera and cinema may, at first glance, appear to be unlikely bedfellows, these two art forms have much in common.
Both offer us dramatic representations which come close to earning the epithet of "total art", uniting as they do around a literary text (a scenario or a libretto) and in a given setting, the combined glories of light, colour, objects and costumes, and of the voice and the actor's art. And if, today, the cinema dominates the field of the audio-visual spectacle, opera can claim to be its oldest manifestation. Cross-breeding between the two is therefore both natural and frequent, if at times problematic.
The film industry's takeover bid for opera has a long history. In recent years we have been offered such opera-films as "Losey's" Don Giovanni, "Bergman's" The Magic Flute, "Zeffirelli's" La Traviata and "Rosi's" Carmen. The quotation marks seem to imply some kind of usurpation; and quite rightly and logically so, since the reality of the opera-film lies in the adoption by a great film director of one of the best-known works of the lyric repertoire and his impression on it of a vision that is virtually that of an entirely different author, a phenomenon to which we shall return later.
In an excellent study published a few years ago, Emmanuel Decaux recalled the distant origins of this cross-fertilization between the two art forms. Starting at the beginning of the century, directors of silent film days made films based on the libretti of famous operas, altered or transformed in varying degrees. In 1909, Regina Badet and Max Dearly starred in a version of Carmen; in 1915, in the United States, the famous vamp, Theda Bara, took the lead in another Carmen, while, that same year, Geraldine Farrar played the same role in a Cecil B. de Mille production.
These early examples of this new genre, from the age of the silent screen, teach us that, from the beginning, the makers of opera-films were quite happy with a situation in which music was, to say the least, placed firmly in the background. Thus, unwittingly, the infancy of the new genre gave us a foretaste of what it would be in its maturity. In 1943, for example, Viviane Romance and Jean Marais were to star in what was literally a "talking" version of Carmen, directed by Christian-Jaque.
At the same time, famous singers were being invited by the cinema world to leave an enduring record of their art. One spectacular example was that of the great bass Chaliapin who, in 1933, appeared in a film version of Don Quixote, directed by G.W. Pabst. The film was designed to capitalize on his public image (in 1910, he had created the title role in this opera by Massenet, and had sung it again countless times), yet, paradoxically, in the film he neither sang to Massenet's music nor followed the libretto by Henri Cain (based on Cervantes' book). Instead, against a natural setting in Provence, Pabst recreated a new story consisting of episodes sung to music specially composed for the film by Jacques Ibert.
In this manner, the opera-film hesitantly groped its way forward. It was as if the film directors were aware that, even if opera offered them raw material of high dramatic potential (and which was sure to have an impact on the public), its very nature (impossible libretti, the unattractive physiques of many singers, the artificial nature of operatic canto and other technical constraints) made the production of a true opera-film an extremely doubtful undertaking.
At the same time, and even before the opera-film industry proper had developed, its major prerequisites, ingredients which are still in use today, were falling into place--location filming for greater realism; the use of playback, essential for exterior filming and having the additional advantage of enabling singers to concentrate more on their acting; the right assumed by directors to modify original libretti and to make of them what they considered to be proper scenarios. …