Three decades of the operatic character on the silver screen
From 1958 to 1986, four notable films of Verdi’s Otello appeared, with remarkably little in common. The first, made for RAI television by director Franco Enriquez in 1958, featured Mario Del Monaco; then came Walter Felsenstein’s East German version in 1969, five years later Herbert von Karajan both conducted and directed his with Jon Vickers and Mirella Freni, and Franco Zeffirelli’s appeared in 1986. All four are cinematic, not filmed stage productions, although the first three could be thought of as stage works adapted to cinema; in fact, two originally were given on the stage. Only Zeffirelli conceived his for the screen, and in so doing appears to have lost sight of Verdi.
In adapting his opera from Shakespeare’s Othello, Verdi very much made it his own work, placing the spotlight on Desdemona’s pathos instead of Othello’s tragedy. In the play she shows independence, intelligence and strength of will, even disputing with her father in Act 1. Verdi had little interest in that side of her, dropping that act entirely, instead revealing her as a sensitive and fragile beauty, in her Act 1 duet with Otello or adulated by children in Act 2, whose demise we will deeply regret. With this early focus on her, the opening of Act 4 becomes the epicenter of the opera, especially the most musically appealing number of the work, her “Willow song.”
Von Karajan recognized that sense of the opera most clearly of the four, and with Freni singing Desdemona, one of the finest singer/actors of the twentieth century, he could be assured of the result. Aside from the opening storm scene, little happens that could not have been done on stage, and the relatively static camera simply gives the audience a better view than from the parterre. Musically this version stands as superior to the others.
RAI intended its production as a vehicle to display Del Monaco’s talent, and even the credits relegated Rosanna Carteri as Desdemona to a secondary role. Despite this, Enriquez used black and white to the best possible effect, capturing atmosphere with his contrast of light and dark, exploring psychological aspects with the varied use of chiaroscuro. Tullio Serafin achieved his usual high standard as conductor, and in no way did he allow Desdemona musically to be slighted.
Felsenstein moved more towards cinema, with sets that could have come from expressionist silent films, creating gloom and foreboding. In Act 4 Otello walks not unlike Murnau’s Nosferatu, and even the kiss has something of the vampire’s touch. His approach was to “photograph the music,” searching for the psychological essence of the music, which in part he achieved with the use of close-up shots, in some cases extreme close-ups, such as Iago’s bloodshot eyes engulfing the screen in his “Credo.” He seems at times to avoid long shots. Not surprisingly for East Germany, the opera was sung in German, and Kurt Masur’s conducting kept the musical level high.
After the successful cinematic realizations of Don Giovanni (Joseph Losey, 1978) and Carmen (Francesco Rosi, 1983), producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films had high hopes for the commercial viability of Zeffirelli’s Otello. Zeffirelli’s approach appears to have accounted for that, as he turned Otello (Placido Domingo) into a crazed killer, possessed by the supposed paganism of his North African background. We encounter that heritage strikingly in Act 1, when the duet between Otello and Desdemona (Katia Riciarelli) underlies flashbacks to his earlier life in Africa. The paganism peaks in Act 4 when we see him naked above the waist burning his cross necklace, reverting to a primitive state.
The shift back to Otello has little to do with Shakespeare, since the paganism all but eliminates the element of tragedy, leaving him as little more than a deranged madman. Movies featuring psychopaths of course were popular; in fact, the Cannon Films release immediately prior to this one was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2. Zeffirelli could perhaps have gone this route while leaving the pathos for Desdemona intact, but he did not, since he entirely excised her strongest outpouring of pathos, the “Willow song.” Perhaps like Marion Crane in Psycho, whom Hitchcock drops in the middle of the film, we are left to focus on the killer instead of the victim. Verdi seems not to have mattered at this point, as his finest music gives way to horror.
With the help of conductor Lorin Maazel, the music comes in for other distortions as well. Unlike the continuous music of the opera, in this film it occasionally stops, as though functioning like a soundtrack, and even has other music inserted, in both Acts 1 and 3, for the added celebratory dance scenes. The treatment of the music as soundtrack gets further emphasis from the generally poor quality of the sound, at times even sounding out of tune because of variance in the speed of the track.
We may find what Zeffirelli did to Verdi objectionable, as well as his apparent pandering to commercial success, but he takes his much further into the realm of cinema—away from the filming of a stage production—than any of the other three. Some of the visual effects are striking, and even his steering Otello towards paganism is not, accounting for Arrigo Boito’s libretto, entirely implausible. In recent years the place of opera as cinema has largely been replaced by Live in HD from the Met, but it would have been interesting to see if the genre active from the 1950s to the 1980s could have succeeded. I suspect if so, Verdi’s operas would have been very much at the center of it.
Otello. Directed by Franco Enriquez. Milan: Hardy Trading Co., n.d.
Directed by Walter Felsenstein. Berlin: Arthaus Musik, 2009.
Directed by Herbert von Karajan. Munich: Unitel, 2005.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Santa Monica, CA : MGM Home Entertainment, Inc., 2003.
About the Author
David Schroeder is Professor Emeritus in the Music Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and he holds a PhD from Cambridge University. His books include Haydn and the Enlightenment (1990), Mozart in Revolt (1999), Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure: The Operatic Impulse in Film (2002), Our Schubert (2008), Hitchcock’s Ear: Music and the Director’s Art (2012), and Experiencing Mozart: A Listener’s Companion (2013).