Opera’s relationship with television and the big screen has always been controversial. So many operas were written with the impact of live singing on an audience in mind that the electricity of that experience is easily lost in films.
There are three main types of opera film. The first (and least common) involves operas written specifically for this different medium; Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave was composed for BBC TV, for instance. A second category is essentially documentary in nature: televised versions of live performances. These have the advantage of capturing the atmosphere of live singing and playing; on the downside, all the vocal flaws are picked up and recorded for posterity.
Lastly, there are the opera films which are shot on location or in a studio, and usually involve the singers miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Admittedly, more recent films of Tosca and La traviata have been performed live on location in Rome and Paris and instantly televised around the globe. The former wasn’t at all a bad effort, whilst the latter was musically dire.
In general, cinematic incarnations of operas are ghastly. For instance, I still shudder to contemplate Zeffirelli’s rendition of Verdi’s Otello, and it has nothing to do with being an opera purist – I’m not sure at whom it is aimed. The big tunes are removed, random bars from the middle of arias are cut, and Iago is killed – which is contrary to the text, and it’s done in an unbelievably theatrical way. If you don’t know the work before you see it, you won’t understand it, and if you already know it, you’d have to feel it was a laughable travesty.
However, I make an exception for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of Rossini’s La Cenerentola or Cinderella. It’s newly released, on DVD for the first time, with fabulous 5.1 Surround Sound. The opera is tongue-in-cheek, and Ponnelle’s reaction is a wacky, exuberant, totally fun rendition of the work.
The film is a 1981 adaptation of a 1973 production from Milan’s opera house, La Scala. The performers are all experienced in their roles, the orchestra is brilliant, and the conductor Claudio Abbado – renowned for his Rossini performances – brings the score to life with wit, charm and vivacity.
Ponnelle pulls out all the stops to make the film as amusing as possible. Comprehending that Rossini deliberately creates stock characters, he makes the characters his puppets. The Act I finale is hysterical – the ugly sisters are camera-conscious, staring at us grotesquely through the screen, and at the end, all the guests at the ball attack the table full of food, geting on top of it and knocking it to pieces.
The sets are atmospheric; it’s unusually well-dubbed; and the variety of images is so great that there’s never a dull moment. My favourite part is the Act II sextet, filmed in silhouette to show the more clearly who is singing which line.
Cast-wise, it’s probably the best of the four versions now available (though I wouldn’t want to be without Ann Murray on the Arthaus DVD). I much prefer Frederica von Stade’s Cinderella on this DVD than Cecilia Bartoli’s on Decca. Von Stade has an easier coloratura, a fuller tone, a genuine low mezzo voice but with a much more secure upper register than Bartoli.
Francisco Araiza is by far the best prince, Don Ramiro, of the last twenty years, and he is in better voice than on the later Salzburg DVD on Arthaus (which suffers from his unwise ventures into heavier roles in the intervening years). The elegant lyricism of his voice is perfect for the bel canto roles, and he’s at his best here.
The prince’s valet Dandini, who swaps places with the prince so that the latter can go round incognito and find someone to genuinely love him, is played by Claudio Desderi; it’s a warm-hearted interpretation, and he is always vocally secure.
Paolo Montarsolo is a booming presence as the bumbling father, Don Magnifico; Margherita Guglielmi and Laura Zannini as the sisters have gorgeous trickling scale techniques; and the philosopher Alidoro, who is the fairy godmother figure in some respects (there’s no godmother in the opera), is sung by Paul Plishka, in complete control of his then-beautiful voice.
I can recommend this whole-heartedly to anyone trying to introduce people to the opera for the first time. And it will delight weathered Rossianians too.