Two Engaging Opera Movies (Not Videos): “Tosca” (1976) and “Don Giovanni” (1979)

Watching movie versions of operas and videos of operas performed on stage can be both enjoyable entertainment and worthwhile arts experiences.  Opera purists should stop reading at this point or take more anti-hypertensive medication.  Seeing Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts streaming on the big screen in a movie theater as I eat popcorn while wearing jeans and a sport shirt is fun.  Also true for watching movie and video recordings of operas on my big screen TV while I have lunch or dinner and can hit the pause button for bathroom breaks or hit the rewind button when I realize I missed something.  Besides, who can afford to go to the Met in NYC more than a couple of times per year or wants to wait a month between operas for local company productions?  And of course, movies and videos are cheaper than live performances. However, if you replace hearing opera live, local or at the Met, with only screen experiences, I’d insist that you are missing out on the best opera experiences, what the purists contend is true opera, hearing trained human voices without electronic transformation and experiencing the emotional impact those live voices carry, plus the deeply humanizing effect of live, shared arts experiences.  

“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.

“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.

Perhaps the biggest difference in producing staged and filmed/video versions is the acting demands on the singers.  Acting on stage requires broad dramatic gestures to be seen throughout the opera house.  Acting must be more nuanced for the close-ups of film and videos.  Now, let’s clearly make the distinction between movie versions of operas and videos that are recordings or streamed showings of live operas being performed on a stage; these are two very different formats that tend to get clumped together, especially when you are ordering DVDs from vendors.  They share certain advantages and disadvantages.  Videos and movies both offer close-up shots during the performance; if you want to see a close-up in the opera house you need opera glasses or binoculars. Both formats control the focus of what you see, not true in the opera house.  Both can also offer additional viewing material.  I especially like the performer interviews during intermissions of Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts, pretty cool actually.  Video directors have some creative options not available to stage directors, movie directors even more so.  Movie versions are not restrained by time or space.  Nothing can make a story that takes place in the 1800s look like you are viewing it taking place in the 1800s in real time like a movie, and movement in time or place is more easily made in films since you don’t have to wait for sets and costume changes. A currently underappreciated advantage of movies and videos is that they capture performances of great singers and productions that can be viewed on demand forever more.  I often watch videos of operas, but I am just venturing into movie versions, mainly at the urging of my son who also loves opera.  I recently watched engaging movie versions of Tosca and Don Giovanni recorded on DVDs that were recommended to me by knowledgeable opera folks, and wish to report on these.

“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.

“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.

The 1976 movie based on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska as Tosca, tenor Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi, and baritone Sherrill Milnes as Scarpia, is an excellent, classical production of Tosca and an excellent film that is a made for TV version.  Puccini and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote Tosca as taking place in three stunning locales in Rome, the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and Castel Sant’Angelo in Act III.  A major advantage of this movie is that it was shot on location, so those three venues are where the movie was filmed, and they are sumptuous; you see what the staged versions are trying to emulate.  In fact, the movie is worth seeing just to compare the actual venues with various stage sets you may have seen.  One can certainly argue that the realism of movies is not as effective for enhancing mood or emotionalism central to the artistic experience as theatrical staging, but in this movie, the real thing certainly works.  Another aspect of film-making that works is the ability of movies to move the action to different places easily and rapidly, i.e., the escaped Angelotti is hurriedly moving along a path to enter the church, not so easily shown on stage due to the distance covered.  This also works for movements required in filming the excellent execution of the “Te Deum” scene. 

For me, the best reason to view this film is the singers, all in the prime of their opera careers when the film was made.  I had not heard Ms. Kabaivanska before and am delighted to report she is a wonderful Tosca with a beautiful tone to her voice; she gives an emotional “Vissi d’arte”, and an overall fine acting performance; in Europe she was known at the time for her Tosca.  Seeing renown tenor Placido Domingo in his prime is a particular treat, and he made a convincing Cavaradossi.  However, the highlight of this film is baritone Sherrill Milnes, whose singing and acting in the role of the villainous Scarpia are superb.  The sound track is excellent; Conductor Bruno Bartoletti gives us a fine recording of the music.  One could take issue with a few features of the film, such as lacking the candelabra placement ritual on Scarpia’s demise, and Ms. Kabaivanska’s acting early in the movie is more suitable for the staged version, but overall, everything works.  Tosca is perhaps one of the better operas for making film versions due to its story and pacing, and the fact that it comes in at a little under two hours, which is short even by today’s movie standards.  This one is even worth watching again for the pleasure of it.

The 1979 movie of Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni takes liberty with the setting as Director Joseph Losey attempts to adapt the theatrical version to a movie format.  The film opens in Venice with principal characters visiting a glass factory and using gondolas for transport and is filmed in a palazzo in Vicenza, Italy, though Mozart’s opera takes place in Spain.  It is an intriguing and promising operning and the change in locale allows use of very dramatic Venetian carnival costumes.  Otherwise, Mr. Losey stuck carefully to the Mozart’s score and Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, probably to the detriment of the movie, as I explain below.  The movie is beautifully filmed in beautiful locales.

One of the problems with Don Giovanni as a movie is that even as an opera it meanders a bit in the middle in order to offer up beautiful music and great arias, and the sequence of events gets confusing.  If this is to be your first Don Giovanni, read a good synopsis of the plot first, or better, see a staged version.  Some of the scenes in the movie are spirited and enjoyable from that perspective, but all of the roaming about in the opera becomes a bit puzzling even in staged versions, which presumably covers a 24-hour period and yet has a statue to the deceased appear by the end.  This doesn’t play well in Mr. Losey’s version which mixes day and night scenes and thereby loses the mood and momentum of Giovanni spiraling towards hell.  The finale could definitely benefit from today’s CGI effects.  This film is fascinating to watch as an attempt to make a great movie based on Don Giovanni, though in the end, it misses the mark. A NYTimes review hit the nail on the head with the comment that the film fails to evoke “a movie world in which we believed”.

A fantastic cast does a credible job of acting and a marvelous job of singing.  Famed baritone Ruggero Raimondo plays an impressively baleful, privileged nobleman in Giovanni, but does less well in projecting his charm or lust.  Raimondi is known for his portrayal of Giovanni and listening to his vocals one can understand why.  Baritone Jose Van Dam is very good as Leporello, as is soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina.  Soprano Edda Moser as Donna Anna and Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira are fabulous.  The conductor for the opera is Lorin Maazel, leading the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the music is also fabulous.  The voices and vocals of the extraordinary singers are a compelling reason to watch the film in themselves.

Movie versions of operas were mostly made in the last half of the last century and many were made for TV versions with limited budgets, and thus lack today’s media and sound refinements.  Nonetheless, I recommend these two. I also think there is an opportunity being missed here by today’s movie directors.  I’d be happy to see Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu jumping into the field: Movie directors, accept the creative challenge of using today’s film-making possibilities to give us a great opera-based film.  Can you create a world we can believe in, even a fantasy world, around a great opera or, for a bigger challenge, overcome the deficiencies of a flawed one that prevents its great music from being oft performed today? 

The Fan Experience: Both of these films are currently unavailable for streaming from any of the usual sources, such as Amazon or Apple.  You should be able to find DVD copies in the $20-30 range, but a little effort in checking options can prove worthwhile in that prices can vary considerably depending on source and type of DVD – regular or blue ray. I called Amazon to ask that they add these operas to their streaming service, but don’t expect them anytime soon. If you’d like to look further into movie versions of operas, a good starting point is Cinema Dailies list of the top 25.