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When Opera Meets Film


Marcia J. Citron


Cambridge Studies in Opera

Cambridge University Press, 2010

Hardback. xviii+324 pages. ISBN 978-0521895750. £58.00


Reviewed by Gilles Couderc

Université de Caen


Film directors have long been fascinated by opera, as Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 Magic Flute, Joseph Losey’s 1979 Don Giovanni and Francesco Rosi’s 1984 Carmen indicate. Yet, as Marcia J. Citron, the author of Opera on Screen (2000), points out in her fascinating study of the interaction between opera and film, the field of research which addresses the medial differences and encounters between cinema, television, video, live or filmed opera began flourishing only two decades ago, and her book makes a welcome and rich contribution to our understanding of the aesthetics of the opera/film encounter. The main argument of her exploration of the symbiotic relationship between both genres is that opera can reveal fundamental features in film, and film can do the same for opera. Her study consists of illuminating case-studies of mainstream films that involve opera and of a few opera-films as she considers that the word “film” includes a variety of meanings and technologies, hence the study of opera-director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s treatments of opera for television.

Four of the six chapters focus on opera in mainstream films, one on opera-films and one explores Don Boyd’s 1987 operatic anthology Aria, an outsider as its ten directors were asked to devise film segments based on opera extracts of their choice. The films selected here span some thirty-odd years and several traditions, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (1972-1990) and Mike Nichols’s 2004 Closer for the U.S., Norman Jewison’s 1987 Moonstruck for Canada, John Schlesinger’s 1971 Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Ken Russel’s contribution to Aria for Britain, Claude Chabrol’s 1995 La Cérémonie for France and Ponnelle’s opera-films for the international opera stage. Citron chose them for important aesthetic elements in the opera/film encounter, the essentialness of opera to the films, their stature and significance in the opera/film encounter and their offering a wide range of issues to be discussed across a variety of films. They feature nine operas, all major repertoire works, with Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas used in four films by as many directors, Puccini’s Bohème and Butterly, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot.

Among her many critical tools Citron applies to opera/film the standard categories developed by film-music scholarship of diegetic, non-diegetic and meta-diegetic music, enfolding all sorts of extradiegetic situations, and the concept of psychodiegetic music to indicate a psychological function for the music. She pays great attention to the source opera, its reputation and reception as well as elements of harmony, rhythm and scoring and ties actual opera music with other soundtrack music. To probe the relationship of opera and film combined, Citron uses Werner Wolf’s theory of intermediality as laid out in The Musicalisation of Fiction and retains the concepts of overt intermediality, when two media are directly present with their conventional signifiers but each remains distinct, and of covert intermediality, when only one of the media combined appears directly as the dominant medium. As she studies a fundamentally hybrid material and the complexities of medial combinations, Citron’s theoretical approach is deliberately eclectic. She borrows theories on aural elements, such as Michel Chion’s notion of the acousmêtre, heard sound without a visible source, or Grover-Friedlander’s concept of “aural remains”, as well as elements of cinematic visual theory, like the technique of point-of-view, or theories associated with time, like flashback or slow pacing.

Citron organises her study in three parts, Style, (Part I), Subjectivity (Part II) and Desire (Part III), each engaging narrative, representation and meaning and each divided into two chapters. The initial ones, general in their approach, involve major repertoire and provide context for the chapter’s focus and background for the more targeted studies that follow. “Style” emphasises the relationship between the workings of opera and film as genres. Chapter I shows how operatic features, style, structure, themes, tone, slow pacing and content shape Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, which exploits such staple themes in nineteen-century opera as love, honour, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. The trilogy offers many parallels: each film features extended party scenes, multiple murders undercut by scenes of normalcy and returns to Sicily, whose folk culture is described with exaggerated warmth; each culminates in operatic climaxes functioning like opera tableaux. Citron focuses on Coppola’s epic style, his favouring mise-en-scène over montage, symmetry, beauty, composition and framing over function and cinematic style. Ritualistic gestures and acts, recurrent symbolic objects as well as ceremonial music recall opera’s affinity for ritual. As the trilogy’s unifying concept Citron highlights exaggeration as well as nostalgia for an idealised past, akin to opera’s affective signature in the past, a nostalgia that is emphasised by Nino Rota’s score, whose treatment of recurring motives sounds Wagnerian. Yet film remains the dominant medium until the staging of Cavalleria Rusticana at the end of the trilogy, which resonates with the whole epic. Citron analyses the stripping down to pure sound in the film’s final section and sees Michael’s silent then gut-wrenching cry as his realising the futility of his dream of redemption and as a return to the distant past of the primal cry of the baby baptised in Godfather I, while Cavalleria’s orchestral Intermezzo signals the triumph of instrumental music, able to access the deepest levels of truth and meaning, in tune with the score’s Wagnerian overtones.

After the grandeur of the epic, Chapter 2 tackles the brevity of the fragment in Frank Roddam’s “Liebestod” and Ken Russel’s “Nessun dorma” in a film that borrows images and techniques from MTV and where Roddam’s and Russel’s segments are the only ones relying on actual opera “hits”, thus in tune with MTV’s practices. The two segments occur in succession, occupy a central position in Aria and provide a double climax. “Liebestod” features the double suicide of a young couple after sex while visiting phoney Las Vegas, whose capitalist decay they must escape, and “Nessun dorma” the return to life of a car accident victim after near-death in a film whose main theme is death. For Citron, sex and the nudity of the young lovers in the Roddam offer a magnificent realisation of Wagner’s music and text, with music driving image and the segment’s plot, the characters literally fusing with the vocal text as agents of action in its second part. Russel’s segment, also in two parts, closely follows Puccini’s music. The introduction to the aria shows the hallucinations of a skimpy-clad sex-bomb confronted to a mysterious and threatening black man while the aria proper returns to real life, a hospital emergency room where the young woman is revived by a black physician. Citron shows how music and image here remain separate and how Russel imitates MTV and manages to criticise exoticism in the way he stages it. Neither postmodern in its reliance on fragment nor modern in its insistence on unity, Aria is a collection of fragments that create a larger arc, operatic in its own right, an experiment with opera to be linked to the popularity of the big-budget opera-films of the 1980’s.

Opera-films flourished in the heyday of Ponnelle, an opera director with strong subjective viewpoints which Citron examines in Part II, “Subjectivity”, where she focuses on identity and the individual, and on the human and cultural elements that guide a director’s approach, telling us more about character and motivation than most opera-films. She examines Ponnelle’s Butterly (1974), Figaro (1976) and Rigoletto (1982) and the many devices he uses to stress subjectivity. He considered camera work and visual decisions, whether flowing with or counterpointing music, as deriving from and supplementing the score and stressed individuality through point-of view shots which seem to emanate from a character’s optical standpoint, through zooms suggesting the immediacy of theatre, the feeling of limits or of limited choices and a rise in dramatic tension, and through differential focus and sharply angled shots. He often uses doubling, when an element of narrative is doubled, like Rigoletto’s face-stock looking like its owner, or when characters see projections of themselves in other characters, as well as “interior singing”, when music is heard but the singer’s lips remain still, which begs questions about the genre of opera-film and its relationship to film-music functions. Finally Ponnelle’s manipulates time to underline subjectivity, like the time loops that trap Pinkerton and Rigoletto. Though his opera-films were meant for the intimate medium of television, he uses opera-film techniques typical of the genre yet relies heavily on film in his treatment of image and music, which makes him a major auteur of screen operas.

The study of Chabrol’s La Cérémonie offers an interesting counterpoint to Ponnelle as it deals with opera presented on TV in a film’s story where Sophie, the live-in maid of the very educated Lelièvres, and her batty partner Jeanne gun down the family as they watch a TV broadcast of Mozart’s Don Giovanni from Salzburg, as a revenge for their finding out that she is illiterate. Subjectivity springs from Chabrol’s thematising his familiar class criticism and elusiveness, here a complex treatment of vision, whose many manifestations, like watching opera on TV, are questioned as he examines the nature of looking on the part of the characters, the camera and the film’s audience, and the idea that mastery of the world derives from vision and the ability to read. Citron studies Chabrol’s ironic use of Don Giovanni and its connection to subjectivity and the role of vision. She focuses on the film’s variable subjective view points, with television viewing as a lens into subjectivity. She discusses the replacement of the visual by the aural in a film where opera is more often heard than seen and where a tape recorder provides the main evidence of the carnage, Chabrol’s way of criticising television, the medium that “kills”.

Part III, “Desire”, deals with the interplay between expectations on the part of the characters and viewers and their affirmation or denial inside or outside the fiction. It opens with a study of iconic Moonstruck, a mix of buffa comedy and verismo where Puccini’s Bohème plays a major part, saturates narrative and shapes our vision of the characters and their perception of their lives. It explores the impact of opera on desire, the various wishes and obsessions of people and the attractions and affinities between ideas in a story where opera affects the subjectivity and passion of burly baker and die-hard opera buff Ronny, a Rodolfo-like poet, for Loretta, the no-nonsense bookeeper and uncomprehending opera novice who dresses up like Puccini’s Musetta for her first visit to the Met and comes out in turn forever “operastruck”. Citron examines the guises of operatic music in the film, which partly uses Puccini verbatim, mostly in association with Ronny, partly Puccini arrangements, partly Italian-sounding instrumental numbers as well as other popular songs, and how Loretta is finally affected both by opera and Ronny’s commanding desire. She suggests that the film evinces desire towards the genre of opera-film, which she sees as a result of the popularity of opera-films at the time, intensifying the viewers’ desire for the kitsch elements in Bohème.

Citron’s last chapter explores the relationship between Mozart’s ravishing Trio “Soave sia il vento” in Cosi with John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Mike Nichols’s Closer which both feature fraught love relationships, sexuality and desire and use “Soave” to signal painful desire. After introducing the two films, their similarities and differences, a simple love triangle for Sunday, a complex quadrille-like foursome of no-holds barred violence and claustrophobia for Closer, Citron focuses on the Trio, its position in Mozart’s opera at the end of the Farewell scene, its style and codes, and its ambiguous and ironic message of melancholy and loss that places desire within a framework of reason. She then examines the relationship between the Trio and the two films as she explores how it functions in each film, the Trio featuring exclusively in Sunday but being one among other Cosi Farewell ensembles in Closer, and discusses each of its appearances to see how music shapes desire and meaning in conjunction with image and plot. Each film receives thorough individual treatment yet all along comparisons provide sharper relief to their respective approach. Despite its many appearances in Sunday, where mature people become resigned to what is, “Soave” retains its operaticness. In Closer it signals the beginning and end of Anna’s and Dan’s relationship, who only have peripheral contact with opera as they never see Cosi when at the opera, cannot benefit from its staging the fluidity of desire and so remain in a world of surface and cynicism, shunning opera and its seductive emotional elements, rejecting operaticness.

In her short Epilogue, Citron further discusses that concept, when the essential qualities of opera, artifice, exaggeration and emotion, are emphasised and recognised as significant or influential in the opera /film encounter. She hopes it will provide a new tool in the interpretation of both opera and film. Her book does certainly offer food for thought and open new perspectives on the opera /film hybrid and will keep both opera and film buffs happy.


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