Passionate Puccini

Love, Italian style: Ruggero Raimondi and Angela Gheorghiu star in Tosca.Photo: courtesy of Avatar Films

Benoît Jacquot’s movie of Puccini’s Tosca is a rare example of first-rate filmed opera. Most operas on film are either flat transcriptions of stage productions or overblown and underfelt extravaganzas, such as Zeffirelli’s Otello, where he made the unconscionable decision to streamline Verdi by dropping Desdemona’s “Willow Song.” One would think that, as a medium, film would be ideal for capturing outsize passions, but too often we’re merely plunked into the fray while the singers, strutting and gesticulating in ways not seen since the heyday of silent cinema, offer up gaping views of their tonsils.

Jacquot, who has never before directed an opera, varies his visual textures: We see not only the operatic performance itself but also snippets in black and white of the singers rehearsing in street clothes with conductor Antonio Pappano and the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Instead of detracting from the magic, this two-tiered effect adds to it: Real people are glimpsed in the throes of being possessed by their roles. Jacquot often moves his camera close in (which unfortunately reveals that the post-dubbing is occasionally imperfect), but he also perches his lenses very high up, as if he were anatomizing the action from a pitiless God-like perspective.

The virtues of Tosca have been debated since it was first staged in 1900. Is it tragedy or melodrama, art or kitsch? By pouring so much passion onto the screen, Jacquot makes such questions seem niggling. However you care to classify this Tosca, it’s amazing. The famous arias are sung by Roberto Alagna, as the freedom-loving artist Cavaradossi; Ruggero Raimondi, as the villainous Roman police chief Scarpia; and Angela Gheorghiu, as Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca. They are so thrillingly felt that the screen seems to tremble, and Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” is, as it should be, the film’s high point.

Most opera singers are less than wonderful actors, and some of them are not exactly well served by being so close to the camera. (Film is great for creating illusions and also, alas, for debunking them.) But the performers here are real actors. Raimondi has already graced three of the most acclaimed operas on film: Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni, Andrzej Zulawski’s Boris Godunov, and Francesco Rosi’s magnificent Carmen, which, along with Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute, is, I believe, the finest of all filmed operas. His Iago-like Scarpia, who has foul designs on Tosca and tortures Cavaradossi, never descends into hamminess. He gives us a man awed by his own depravity.

Gheorghiu, especially, flourishes on film; the camera illuminates her dark, slightly harsh beauty, and she sings as if transfixed by fate. Tosca, of course, is a famous singer and beauty, and so, in a sense, Gheorghiu is creating an enraptured self-reflection. She expresses not only Tosca’s ardor but also her own fervor for performing. Gheorghiu is such an accomplished diva that her emotions never seem inflated or false. She has to be too much or she’s nothing. With her crimson dress – its voluminous train like a vast pool of blood – this Tosca is aflame in her very own inferno. Her love for Cavaradossi is one of those grand opera follies that only makes sense, as it does here, in the highest reaches of feeling. Jacquot has said in interviews that he was interested in capturing not psychological states but rather “curves of intensity in a landscape of passion,” and, scene-for-scene, that’s exactly what he’s accomplished. Alagna, as an actor, is not the mesmerist on film that Gheorghiu is (she’s his real-life wife), but singing together, their voices achieve a frightening oneness. The real passion in this movie is the passion between artists at the height of their gifts.

It’s impossible to watch Blade Runner or Minority Report, to take two examples out of 200, without thinking of Fritz Lang’s great, loony 1927 futurist epic Metropolis. A new restoration just released by Kino, at Film Forum, is longer and better-looking than any of its previous incarnations. You’ve seen the rest; now see the best.

Directed by Benoît Jacquot; starring Roberto Alagna, Ruggero Raimondi, and Angela Gheorghiu.

Passionate Puccini