A look at the award-winning musical films of Verdi’s classics
Franco Zeffirelli has built his career on opera and on film. In the early part of his life he assisted famed director Luchino Visconti and learned a great deal about stagecraft and cinema. He soon began directing opera on his own, and like his mentor did the designs as well. Over the years Zeffirelli has staged legendary productions around the world. At the Metropolitan Opera, for instance, his lavish productions of Puccini’s La Bohème and Turandot, introduced in 1981 and 1987 respectively, have become fixtures of the house. Zeffirelli’s first commercial films date from the 1960s, when he made a sensation with two movies based on Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew, starring Hollywood’s hot couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and Romeo and Juliet, with the young unknowns Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. Zeffirelli’s take on the star-crossed lovers has become a classic. Nino Rota’s operatic score (he was also composer for Shrew) meshed well with the beauty on screen and contributed to the film’s success.
Meanwhile, Zeffirelli was trying to join his twin loves in a film of Verdi’s La Traviata that would star his idol, Maria Callas. Unfortunately the project was never realized. Over the coming years the climate for opera-film would be more favorable. In 1982 Zeffirelli made modest films of the one-act operas Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni) and I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo). Although both include outdoor scenes, they were mostly shot in La Scala and the studio. That same year, Zeffirelli made a cinematic opera movie, La Traviata. It enjoyed wide distribution, garnered extremely favorable reviews, and proved a hit with audiences. Although Zeffirelli was unable to cast Callas, who died in 1977, he found a magnificent Violetta in Teresa Stratas, an extraordinary singer-actress who all but embodied the consumptive heroine. In 1986 Zeffirelli’s film of Verdi’s Otello came out. It also appeared in wide release, but drew a mixed reaction. While audiences loved the visual beauty and the singing, some critics found Zeffirelli’s musical changes and lavish style unsuitable for Verdi’s late opera. Since then, both films have become landmarks of opera-film: memorable renditions of Verdi that show a master stylist with a particular vision.
A key part of that vision entails references to the opera’s literary source. His Traviata opens with an extended flashback. In Verdi’s source, the novel (and later play) La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, the narrator relates the tale told to him by the male protagonist, Armand Duval, of his relationship with the courtesan Marguerite Gautier, who died of consumption. In the opera the plot proceeds from start to finish without temporal manipulation. In the film, however, Violetta is very ill at the start, the same state she will be in at the start of Act IV. Once the sparkling music starts she conjures up her past life and Verdi’s story comes alive. Besides alluding to the literary source, Zeffirelli makes the connection by way of the music: Verdi has the same mournful music before Acts I and IV. Zeffirelli renders visual what Verdi hints at in the score. By the way, some opera imply a flashback in staged versions of the opera. For example, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1979 production for Houston Grand Opera a large coffin visible from the start presages Violetta’s death at the end.
In his Otello Zeffirelli incorporates the Shakespearean source in imaginative ways. Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito omitted the first act of Otello, which unfolds in Venice, in order to keep the action in one place (Cyprus) and allow space for the music to unfold. Their solution is brilliant, except that some motivation for Otello’s vulnerability, already a problem in the play, is removed. Zeffirelli recoups the missing Act through flashbacks in the magnificent Love Duet at the end of the opera’s Act I. The last of the four flashbacks replicates the setting of a major scene in the play’s first Act. In the Venetian Senate, as the marriage of Otello and Desdemona is deemed lawful, the face of her father registers deep disappointment. Before that the director presents two flashbacks at her father’s house in which Desdemona gazes with wonder and growing love at Otello. Although these sequences do not actually occur in Shakespeare’s version, they highlight the Venetian origins of their relationship and Otello as “other.” Another flashback is even further from Shakespeare. As Desdemona sings of how Otello related his bondage into slavery, the film visualizes a boy’s abduction in Africa from the arms of his mother. This is an invented scene, but entirely consistent with the sung words, which originate in Act I of the play. Taken as a whole, Zeffirelli’s version of the Love Duet is a thoroughly cinematic expansion that rounds out Otello’s character and helps us understand the tragedy that will befall the couple.
Although Franco Zeffirelli is not typically considered an auteur of opera-film, La Traviata and Otello represent remarkable interpretations of two masterpieces by Giuseppe Verdi. In the process viewers around the world get to savor the pleasures of a great visual stylist and a brilliant musical dramatist.
Marcia J. Citron is Lovett Distinguished Service Professor of Musicology at Rice University in Houston. An expert on opera and film, she is the author of the books When Opera Meets Film (2010) and Opera on Screen (2000), which has a chapter on Zeffirelli’s Otello. Citron received Honorary Membership in the American Musicological Society, a lifetime achievement award.