The Unique Musical Skills Of Maria Callas Live On With This Cinematic Document From Near The Apex Of Her Career.
This incontrovertibly important work of musical history provides footage shot during the Paris debut of La Diva Divina, Maria Callas, 19 December, 1958, upon a rainy Friday evening where, inside of the Paris Garnier (later the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris), the resident chorus and orchestra is well-handled and drilled by conductor Georges Sebastian, properly so in consideration for the significance of an event that elicited a critical verdict of brilliance accorded to the finest dramatic soprano of the second half of the twentieth century, about whom an aesthetic industry has grown apace, particularly since her premature death, having a contradictory body of thought available for every considered opinion. The evening is titled La Grande Nuit de l'Opéra, and it is charged with excitement as we view dignitaries arrive, including René Coty, President of France while, as the camera pans across the interior of the beautiful theatre, other notables from the entertainment realm are recognized, among them Charles Chaplin, Juliette Gréco, and Brigitte Bardot (wrapped in a fur!). This piquant preface to the music requires the VHS taped edition due to its excision from the DVD release of the event and, although the richest portion of the entertainment is yet to come with the appearance of Callas, suspense created from mounting expectancy makes this tape format the correct choice. The film is made for television in France, with narration in French and, although there are no English subtitles, they would be of little use for this dignified yet dazzling spectacle that will command respect, even from detractors of the esteemed soprano for, while there may be some straining during some pieces, anything less than totally refined musicianship is not to be found here. Following a rousing orchestral performance of La Marseillaise, Sebastian leads his instrumental charges in a spirited reading of the overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino, during which the camera-work is exceptional as we watch soloists and also scan the score. Then the appearance after which all in attendance have been curious: the entrance of Maria Callas, beautifully gowned (crimson, quoth the narrator), coifed (upswept), and ornamented with diamonds (earrings, necklace), all of which ostensibly contributed to the besotting of Aristotle Onassis, among the audience and soon to crave an introduction. An immensely enthusiastic welcome to the diva from the attendees is as expected while fulfillment of the promise due to all from her talents immediately makes the acclamation most appropriate. The initial four arias come from Act I of Bellini's Norma, beginning with Sedizione Voci (with basso Jacques Mars), an ably acted and sung number by both, with chorus. This is succeeded by a well-known speciality of Callas, Casta Diva, again with chorus, as she displays her superior dramatic expertise, extended applause appropriate a result of her sublime execution. The final pair of this Norma set provides material that demonstrates her solid command of emotion, certified here by three curtain calls. From episodes in Act IV of Verdi's Il Trovatore, we are treated to three pieces, including the popular Miserere, again with chorus as well as tenor Albert Lance. Rossini's exciting Overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia is perfectly played by the orchestra, after which Callas proves to be more than equal to coloratura requirements of Una Voce Poco Fa from Act I of that opera. The final segment of the film is given to a complete performance (in costume) of Puccini's Tosca, Act II. Here, Callas is seen with, among others, baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia. Gobbi is a dramatic match for Callas, their acting being top-notch throughout. The diva's rendition, as Tosca, of Vissi d'arte, a mainstay throughout her career, temporarily halts the production because of enthusiastic audience reaction. This film in its entirety is a visceral delight upon a high artistic level, and can be justly recommended for inclusion within the film library of all devotees of Callas and of musical drama.
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