It is like watching childbirth. Through a narrow channel (the movie projector beam), with struggle, exertion and sometimes pain, a living entity (the opera film) is forced out into the world. The first impression is of a bawling mouth and lots of noise. The first instinct, often, is to hold the creature upside down and smack it hard.
But the end result can be a miracle: a living organism growing up straight, rich, true and complex. Though the infant mortality rate in filmed opera is high – famed fiascos include 1953’s Aida with Sophia Loren miming to Renata Tebaldi’s voice – we can think in compensation of Syberberg’s Parsifal, Losey’s Don Giovanni, Bergman’s The Magic Flute. Next week we have the UK release of Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute: very different from Bergman’s, possibly a candidate for smacking, but with moments of giddy grandeur.
First a fact, then a confession. The fact is that opera on film has existed for more than 80 years, ever since sound was born, and will undoubtedly exist for another 80-plus. The confession is that I fell in love with opera 30 years ago almost to the week – I have just dug out my first English National Opera programme (Rita Hunter in the Reginald Goodall Valkyrie) – after a previous 30 years in which, like many, I thought the art form absurd. Having eyes and ears mainly for cinema, I never imagined I could warm to a union between the art of the silver screen and that of the quaking uvula.
But people can be too caught up in thoughts of division. Opera itself makes possible an “impossible” union, that between believable drama and musical stylisation. The apparent awkwardness of this yoking is no hindrance to an imagination that can return to the commonality of art as deed and impulse. You don’t have to be a romantic – more an imaginative realist – to believe that all arts are joined at the roots, a kind of cultural world-ash-tree.
Music and drama, especially, were never far apart. I once developed a theory – from which people ran screaming at parties, though I’ll précis it quickly here – in which opera was a kind of dialectical détente between Orpheus and Dionysus. Hang on to your hats; hear me out.
Narrative musical performance preceded spoken drama in history, not the other way about. Greek tragedy, itself part-sung, grew out of the dithyrambic song, an Orphean mode celebrating Dionysus. The tension between Orpheus, the father of the pre-Christian creed Orphism (which celebrates death as the purifying release from life and envisions resurrection), and Dionysus, for whom life is a cycle of instinct, rapture and violence capped by an earth-regenerating death, does as much as anything to “explain” opera.
From Orpheus come the stately transcendence and upward gaze of opera seria, where people sing amid doom and downfall of the perfectability of existence or the consolations of after-existence. From Dionysus comes the dominant later tradition, the blood-weltering carpe diem of the Carmens and Wozzecks, of the Verdi and Puccini melodramas, in which life is a struggle of emotional extremes and then we die. The Dionysian opera doesn’t believe in God (however many priests fill up the stage, protesting too much, in La Forza del Destino). And death just fertilises the earth for the next generation.
Comic opera too, in its classic phase, was often Dionysian. Look at the savage treatment of old men or jealous guardians in opera buffa. Their downfall is a bacchic rejoicing in the death of the old and the coming of the new, in the exchange of superannuated lust for renewing love and desire.
What has all this to do with opera on film? Two things: a yin, Dionysian, and a yang, Orphean. Dionysus insists that opera needs a live audience. Otherwise it is a bullfight without a crowd. The performers must feel a blood-link with the audience. The audience must feel they could, even if politely they don’t, bay and yell. For it is not just the characters who are being offered up for sacrifice, it is frequently, in this danger-relishing form where notes can fail, high-C’s miss and voices “go” completely, the performers. (I have seen it happen, the suddenly mute-struck performer, condemned for the remaining show to mime to a dinner-jacketed stand-in at side of stage.) Opera without risk and peril – which is opera on film – can seem like no opera at all.
Orpheus disagrees. In a good opera film the errors and excesses of human performance are overcome; a seamlessness is established between scenes or acts (no costumed supers noisily carrying out chairs or corpses); and miming to playback, though bad when badly done, at best allows singer-actors to make unexaggerated, human-seeming mouth movements because the sounds do not actually come whoomping out of their throats.
Even with Dionysian operas, argues Orpheus, cinema’s streamlining effect can reconcile irreconcilables and humanise hyperbole. He cites Francesco Rosi’s Carmen or Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca or Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello. The characters can seem to converse in music, they can think aloud the arias – rather than belt them out as onstage showstoppers – and they can walk real streets and roam about real villas. This is opera as pre-film generations could only dream it: opera purged of fustian melodrama and cuckoo stagecraft.
But Dionysus will have none of it. The suspense, hazard and high voltage of live opera – the skirmishings with mishap – are opera.
“I demand this human sacrifice,” Dionysus cries of the wobbly soprano martyred by a booing audience. “I insist on this rapture of calamity,” he exclaims when a tenor gear-crashes his high-C into a B, or the chorus misses its cue, or a piece of Siegfried’s sword sheers off in the middle of his forging song (I once saw it happen) and flies into the orchestra pit, nearly assassinating the first cello.
For equally and compensatingly, Dionysus claims, you cannot replicate the miracle moments of live performance on screen: those epiphanic highs when the tenor hits the stratospheric note or when singers and chorus come together for real in an ear-filling, heart-filling tutti.
(If Dionysus has any positive opinion of filmed opera, he probably admires the bad examples not the good. He respects not the mendacious, cosmetic streamlining but the flayed folly of its giant close-ups, the naked exposure of the collision between the sublime and ridiculous. Dionysus seeks out the potential for destructive ecstasy in filmed opera that cannot hide its tracks or its origin.)
Let us come to Branagh’s The Magic Flute. Mozart’s last opera is, in a way, both Dionysian and Orphean. It begins with violence, danger and threatened death: an attacking serpent, a wicked mother masquerading as a Madonna of the skies, a rape-imperilled girl. Slowly the bacchanal of disaster metamorphoses into an opera seria. By the end, upright youth is obeying aged wisdom in honouring and meeting the challenges set by divinity. The Magic Flute becomes (neo)classical. It becomes almost literally Orphic, with a disguised Orpheus in the shape of the flute-playing Papageno.
If we must have opera on film (and for many it will remain the equivalent of paintings on postcards or novels on CD), then I like the madness of Branagh’s approach. He sets the movie in the battlefields of the first world war, with the Queen of Night riding a tank, Tamino and company scurrying through the trenches and Sarastro running a field hospital.
Sometimes it is as if Blackadder III has escaped into the 18th century. But it is full-blooded, vivid and bold. The camera surges; the skies riot; the music blazes. Dionysus would surely rejoice at the spectacular demise – watch out for it – of the Queen of Night. And Orpheus would be satisfied by the technical fluency and virtuosity with which cinema can now harmonise voice, image and orchestral sound in a way that draws attention to Mozart, not to the straining make-believe of movie opera as it used to be.
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