TERRY GROSS, Host:
Opera has played a part in many films, and not only films that are actually about opera.
Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is going to review two new DVD releases that involve opera. One is an Italian romantic and political melodrama, and the other is a Hollywood musical comedy. They couldn't be more different from each other, and Lloyd loves them both.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The Italian film director Luchino Visconti was also an opera director, most famously working with Maria Callas in some of her greatest roles. His version of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" was one of the most memorable and realistic opera productions I ever saw.
His 1954 film "Senso," finally on DVD, actually begins at the opera house in Venice near the end of the Austrian occupation in the 1860s. It's the climax of Verdi's "Il Trovatore." The famous tenor battle cry is here sung directly to the audience, with brandished sword, and is a cue to protest the occupation.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IL TROVATORE")
SCHWARTZ: The Italian actress Alida Valli - who is probably best known for her moving performance as Orson Welles's lover in "The Third Man" - plays an Italian countess sympathetic to the protest. Early in "Senso" she says to a smug Austrian officer, played by the late Farley Granger, who's just had a nasty argument with Valli's revolutionary cousin, that she doesn't believe that people's lives should be operatic. But she's about to be overwhelmed by a passion for Granger that will lead her to betray her cousin and all the fighters for an independent and unified Italy.
Visconti's mysteriously ambiguous title, "Senso," means sense, as in the five senses, or sensation, sensuality, or even common sense. In other words, the countess's life becomes like an opera, and opera itself becomes a metaphor for all intense human emotion. Visconti's painful and riveting film even ends with a mad scene.
Almost the complete opposite of "Senso," but even more directly about opera, is a featherweight MGM musical farce from 1946 called "Two Sisters From Boston." It too is a period piece, taking place early in the 20th century. The late Kathryn Grayson plays a young woman desperate to become an opera singer. She leaves her snobbish Boston family and to pay for her singing lessons gets a job in a seedy New York nightclub run by Jimmy Durante.
Grayson's efforts to break into opera by sneaking on stage during a performance are hilarious, but the real star of the film is the great Danish Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior, who, after he retired from the opera stage, proved to be a delightful comic actor in Hollywood movies. This is his second one, and he plays an opera star upstaged and enraged by Grayson's clumsy onstage intrusions. He has a devoted pet terrier, Tristan, named after one of Melchior's greatest roles. The dog follows him everywhere, even into a recording studio.
My favorite scene depicts an early recording session. Melchior is reluctantly recording "The Prize Song" from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger." He sings into a horn while someone adjusts his volume by pulling him by the lapels closer to or pushing him further away from the horn. When Melchior stops, a bunch of violinists rush forward to play. I think this is Melchior's most magnificent singing on film.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PRIZE SONG")
LAURITZ MELCHIOR: (Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: The punchline of the scene comes when the recording is played back. When little Tristan jumps onto the table and stares into the horn, someone exclaims: His master's voice. Everything in the movie suddenly seems a setup for this recreation of the famous RCA Victor logo.
I love the way Visconti takes opera seriously - and the way Hollywood doesn't. Together these two films present something close to the full range of what opera can be.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed Visconti's "Senso" on Criterion, and "Two Sisters From Boston" on-demand from Warner Archives.
We have some great news to end the show with. Our former producer, Monique Nazareth, has just given birth to Grayson Sebastio Cronin Nazareth. We send our congratulations to Monique and her husband Patrick Cronin, and wish them all well.
I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY MINE")
GROSS: (Singing) Baby mine don't you cry. Baby mine dry your eyes. Rest your head close to my heart, never to part. Baby of mine. Little one when you play, don't you mind what they say. Let those eyes sparkle and shine, never a tear. Baby of mine.
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