Friday, September 13, 2013

Merola Goes to the Movies: La Traviata (1982)

Please join us this Sunday in the Koret Auditorium for the 1 p.m. screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata (1982).  Hosted by the Merola Opera Program and the Art, Music and Recreation Department, this film is the first of a five-part series, Merola Goes to the Movies, which aims to bring opera's finest adaptations to celluloid into our library screening room.  Each film will be introduced by a knowledgeable Merola representative.

For those unfamiliar with the Merola Opera Program, for 56 years it has been regarded as the world's foremost opera training program for aspiring singers, coaches and stage directors. As the cornerstone of San Francisco Opera's training and performance programs for promising young artists, Merola has served as a proving ground for hundreds of artists, including Ruth Ann Swenson , Deborah Voigt , Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Sylvia McNair, Thomas Hampson, Carol Vaness, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick among many others.

Our Merola Goes to the Movies series begins with Zeffirelli’s La Traviata (1982) a film many critics deem the height of opera’s cinematic expression.  Before skyrocketing to directorial fame for Taming of the Shrew (1967) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Romeo and Juliet (1968) starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, Zeffirelli began his career in the 1950s as a designer and director for opera working, most notably, for Luchino Visonti.  According to Richard Fawkes in Opera on Film, Zeffirelli “was longing to combine his love of opera with his love of film, but it took him more than twenty years to achieve his ambition.”
Before aiming his intentions on Canadian-born soprano Teresa Stratas who stars as La Traviata’s mesmerizing Violetta, Zeffirelli devoted at least a decade and a half to conceiving, pursuing and negotiating for cinematic adaptations for Maria Callas.  Beginning in 1958, well before he had any film directorial experience, he had proposed to Callas that she star in a filmed La Traviata.  Nervous of film and Zeffirelli’s lack of experience with the medium, she declined.  He later proposed a filmed Tosca, which he had directed her in for stage, but due to the inability to secure the film rights and Callas’ (or possibly Aristotle Onassis’) continued reticence, the closest remnants of her legendary 1964 Tosca performance survive in a 1964 TV special, Maria Callas at Covent Garden.  Despite her increasing retreat from public view and her rebuff of his plans, Zeffirelli had also envisioned Callas for an Aida to be filmed on location in Egypt, but the Six Day War of 1967 brought his planning to a halt.

Over the years Zeffirelli continued to envision filmed operas, even holding a 1979 location scout in Egypt for Aida and storyboarding exercises with Leonard Bernstein (whom he had invited to conduct), but it was not until 1981 that he would achieve his dream of directing an operatic film. That year the Italian state television service, RAI, invited Zeffirelli to film the opening night broadcast of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at La Scala.  Zeffirelli agreed, on the condition that he could make a film--using a closed house, the La Scala sets, orchestra and performers--not just shoot the live operatic performance.  RAI agreed and the director proceeded to film both operas in two days, managing to finish in time for the normal live evening performance to take place as scheduled.  Both were well-received but Pagliacci, starring Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas, also later won an Emmy.  Their success created the opportunity for Zeffirelli to bring his stars to Rome for filming on sets of his own design to create an award-winning La Traviata, the operatic film he had first imagined over twenty years prior.

Sources consulted:
Opera on Film by Richard Fawkes.
London : Duckworth, 2000.
782 ZF2872o 

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen : a Guide to More Than 100 Years of Opera Films, Videos, and DVDs by Ken Wlaschin.
New Haven : Yale University Press, c2004.
Ref 782 ZW796o 2004 

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