26 July 2002 | dwingrove
An Opera Film By A Director Who Hates Opera!?!
Given the prohibitive costs of shooting and marketing a film - any film, on any subject - any director rash enough to try a "filmed opera" faces a double challenge. It is no longer enough to make an Opera Film: the sort popular in Italy in the 40s and 50s, when opera still enjoyed a wide audience. It is now necessary to make an Opera Film For People Who Hate Opera: one with enough populist appeal to win over millions of film-goers who are either indifferent to opera or can't bear it.
It's a well-nigh impossible trick, and only a handful of directors have come anywhere close to pulling it off. Still, I defy even the most tone-deaf of operaphobes to watch Powell and Pressburger's 1951 Tales of Hoffmann or Losey's 1979 Don Giovanni or Zeffirelli's 1982 La Traviata, and not adore every moment! As for Benoit Jacquot's new film of Tosca...well, he seems to have gone one better than all the others, and turned out the first-ever Opera Movie By A Director Who Obviously Hates Opera, So Why Did He Bother In The First Place?
With its thunderous blood-and-sex soaked libretto and romantically hysterical score, Giacomo Puccini's Tosca is perhaps the greatest melodrama - spoken or sung - ever to hit the stage. As TS Eliot once wrote of a novel by Wilkie Collins; "It has no merit beyond melodrama, but it has every merit that melodrama can have." No piece of musical theatre on earth is less suited to the odious cod-Brechtian 'distancing devices' that Jacquot employs in his deluded attempts to seem avant-garde. If you cannot wallow in the heart-thumpingly overwrought melodramatics of Tosca, you should not go near them at all.
So what can be the logic of splicing in black-and-white footage of the high-priced cast as they record the vocal score? Or those awful jiggly, grainy shots of those monuments in Rome where the action takes place? Or forcing Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorgiu - the reigning Golden Couple on the international opera scene - to speak the dialogue 'live' while singing it on the soundtrack? This sort of hollow trickery can only outrage opera fans, while leaving the vast majority of the public as bewildered as they ever were.
So Jacquot is both a Philistine and a moron, and his film should be an out-and-out disaster BUT...lacking even the courage of his own puny convictions, most of the time he forgets to be Post-Modern and just gives us the melodrama straight. The result is nothing short of miraculous. As Floria Tosca, an opera diva struggling to save her lover from the clutches of an evil Chief of Police, Angela Gheorghiu is - vocally and dramatically - a rival to our memory of Maria Callas. With her torrent of raven hair, triumphal cheekbones and sulphurous eyes, her screen presence is an echo of Sigourney Weaver.
A pity that her most erotic love interest is not the romantic and revolutionary painter Mario Cavaradossi. (Roberto Alagna, aka Mr. Gheorghiu, lags far behind his wife in vocal skills and shows not the faintest sign of talent as an actor.) Rather, it is the evil police chief Baron Scarpia who deserves to win her heart. Not only a veteran of opera films - including Losey's sumptuous Don Giovanni - Ruggero Raimondi has also acted 'straight' roles, notably as a dotty French nobleman obsessed with immortality in the 1983 Alain Resnais film La Vie Est Un Roman. With his haggard eyes and glittering black greatcoat, Raimondi has an almost vampiric quality. Perhaps the sexiest, most seductive screen villain since Basil Rathbone.
And so - irony of ironies - this Opera Film By A Director Who Hates Opera turns out to be a near-classic, a close rival to Zeffirelli or Losey or Powell-Pressburger. Let's just hope that nobody ever gives Jacquot another opera to direct. Next time, he might really wreck it! Let's hope, on her next project, that Angela Gheorghiu wields her ever-increasing clout and hires a film-maker who actually knows what opera is. Isn't Gerard Corbiau in need of a job? Now that I'd love to see.