Visconti’s Verdi

The filmmaker’s passion for the great composer

by Pierpaolo POLZONETTI

On November 2, 1906, Carla Erba, granddaughter of the founder of a leading Italian pharmaceutical industry, gave birth to Luchino Visconti in Milan, the city once ruled by the Visconti family. One hour before he was born – as he liked to recollect – the curtain went up at La Scala for a performance of Verdi’s Traviata.

It was destiny that Visconti, one of the world’s greatest film and stage directors, would develop an obsession for Verdi. The apotheosis of this obsession was his production of Traviata at La Scala in 1955, featuring a splendid Maria Callas who during the previous year went on a strict diet that helped her lose 66 pounds, transforming her body and giving her a completely different stage presence. Callas became an unsurpassed and yet much imitated interpreter of Traviata’s main role, Violetta – a courtesan and party animal who ends up dying of consumption.

As Visconti wrote to Callas’s husband, “you see, our Traviata will last, whatever reactionaries and hopeless jerks could possibly say.” The director explained that “thanks to the art of a great actress like Maria future Violettas will be Violetta-Marias,” and concluded that “it is destiny in art when somebody teaches something to others and Maria has taught.” But Maria Callas also learned something from Visconti. Her style of acting, both on stage and in real life, changed remarkably after her encounter with this director and not only because of her weight loss. Rubens Tedeschi of L’Unità, in his review of the Callas-Visconti production of Traviata, wrote that “it represented the first turning point in the history of staging and set design, showing how opera could be cleansed of conventions and become a modern, live, believable form of performing art.” Others, like Teodoro Celli of Corriere Lombardo, accused Visconti of treating Verdi’s music as a film score of one of his movies and of contaminating Verdi with neo-realistic aesthetics, which he refers to using the old-fashioned term verismo.

In preparing for the opera the superdiva Maria Callas, “La divina,” humbled herself and followed Visconti’s directions scrupulously. She never missed a rehearsal, even though Visconti imposed a high number of them, including lengthy study sessions with only Callas, the conductor Giulini and himself. As Maestro Giulini recounted, “for three weeks, Visconti, Callas, and myself worked only on the Violetta character. Only after that we started rehearsals. Visconti had the great ability to suggest ideas that an intelligent actress like Callas assimilated and made her own. In these three weeks the character of Violetta was created: La Callas became Violetta.”

Traviata was Visconti’s first attempt at directing Verdi’s operas, followed by Don Carlo at Covent Garden in London in 1958, then in Rome in 1965. In 1958 Visconti also directed Macbeth at the Spoleto Festival dei due Mondi, where he produced a second version of Traviata in 1963. Four years later, he staged a third, and very different Traviata in London. He then directed Il trovatore, first in Moscow, then at Covent Garden (both in 1964). Finally he directed Falstaff in 1966 and Simon Boccanegra three years later, both at the Staatsoper of Vienna.

Besides his contribution to Verdi’s theater as a stage director, Visconti’s obsession with Verdi is also apparent in his movies. One could compare the banquet scene in Il gattopardo (The Leopard) to the lavish banquet scene in Traviata. Indeed Zeffirelli, who was Visconti’s assistant and pupil, reproduces Visconti’s idea of a banquet in his own movie version of Traviata (1982). From Visconti Zeffirelli also got the idea of Violetta drinking wine from leftover glasses after the act-one party, before singing her cabaletta “sempre libera.” Even Zeffirelli’s choice to cast Teresa Stratas as Violetta was a more or less conscious attempt to evoke Callas, at least visually, for both Callas and Stratas were svelte singers of Greek descent.

Verdi’s music and drama play a fundamental role in Visconti’s first movie, Ossessione (1943), based on James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. The movie opens with a neo-realistic scene: a tank truck stops at a gas station with annexed tavern. As the truck drivers share a drink from a wine flask, we hear “Di Provenza il mar, il suol,” the aria from Traviata sung by the father of Violetta’s young lover. This melody reaches our ears as diegetic off-screen music, amateurishly sung by the owner of the gas station, Giuseppe Bregana. He is rehearsing it for an upcoming lyric-voices contest. The melody sticks in everybody’s ears. We see clients of the gas station’s tavern walking away while still singing bits of the aria, or trying it out on the tavern’s piano. The aria also denotes Bregana as the old father figure. His young wife, who married him to escape from poverty, falls in love with Gino (Massimo Girotti), a charming, penniless vagabond.

Gino also falls in love with Giovanna Bregana (Clara Calamai), as she offers him food and wine. Likewise, in Traviata, Violetta and Alfredo establish their relationship in a banquet scene in which she pours wine into the young man’s glass, before he starts singing the famous brindisi, “Libiam ne’ lieti calici.” After they make love for the first time Giovanna tells Gino how before marrying she used to accept men’s “invitations to dinner” as a profession. Her past as a hooker draws her close to the courtesan Violetta. Alfredo’s rival is in fact an old Baron, whose riches makes him an ideal sugar daddy, but cannot compete with the young man’s charm.

The scene of the lyric contest in Ossessione is an essay of Visconti’s operatic culture and sensibility. As Gino and Giovanna sit at the table, we hear arias that loosely relate to their situation. First, we hear the seductive Habanera from Carmen. Then, a tenor sings “Je crois encore” (in Italian translation) from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, in which Nadir breaks his vow of loyalty to his friend to pursue a forbidden love for the priestess Leïla. Another tenor sings “È il sol dell’anima,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, a slow piece in which the libertine Duke declares his love to Gilda to seduce her. But it is during Bregana’s number, “Di Provenza il mar, il suol,” that Gino and Giovanna talk most passionately about their love as the old husband sings “Il tuo vecchio genitor” (“your old father”).

After the lyric contest, the old husband gets drunk. We see the trio (husband and lovers) walking down the steps of Ancona with him still singing Germont’s aria ad nauseam, holding the bottle, which he does not share. As in Verdi, the act of not sharing food or drink isolates the character as it breaks his bonds with other characters, often with tragic consequences. In Ossessione, the young couple kill Giuseppe Bregana, reporting to the police that he died in a car accident after driving completely drunk. Gino and Giovanna would eventually die in an accident after a car chase with the police, encountering the same destiny they forced on Giovanna’s husband.

As it happens between Alfredo and Violetta, in the middle of the movie Giovanna and Gino split momentarily. In the opera it happens as Gino, tormented by guilt, keeps imagining the old man staring at him, like Macbeth with the ghost of Banquo. Visconti suggests the association quite explicitly as Gino cries “Lo vedo ancora là dietro quel banco!” – “I still see him there behind that counter” – where banco means ‘counter’ but sounds exactly like the name of Shakespeare’s character, called Banco in Verdi’s Macbeth. As in Traviata, the reconciliation of the two lovers takes place as the tragic end approaches. Giovanna tells Gino that she is pregnant: “We, who have stolen a man’s life have now the opportunity to give life to another.” As Gino asks for forgiveness we hear background orchestral music by Giuseppe Rosati with diaphanous strings in the high register, as when Violetta, dying, appears to be transformed from sinner to saint.

If Visconti’s production of Traviata was affected by his cinematic experiences, his first movie, Ossessione, appears to be influenced by his operatic culture. In Ossessione Visconti also shows how in the real world Verdi was sung, amateurishly, in inns, taverns, in the streets. In so doing he gives us a glimpse of Italy’s own obsession with Verdi. He shows how Verdi’s music was part of Italy’s culture among common people. Most importantly, Visconti represented common people’s personal dramas in a way that make them akin to the heroes and heroines of Verdi’s operas. In so doing Visconti radicalized the democratic mission of a composer who conferred nobility even to a courtesan.


About the Author


Pierpaolo-Polzonetti_1Pierpaolo Polzonetti is Associate Professor of music and liberal studies at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes on opera and eighteenth-century music. He is the coeditor of the Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Opera. His book, Italian Opera in the Age of the American Revolution (Cambridge University Press 2011), won the Lewis Lockwood book award and his article on Mozart’s Così fan tutte published in the Cambridge Opera Journal has received the Einstein Award, both conferred by the American Musicological Society. He is writing a book about food, love and opera.