While Bellini is not one of my favourite composers, his operas make for very pleasurable listening, especially 'Norma'. The stories are no great shakes but there is no mistaking Bellini's style, there was no other opera composer who wrote music the way Bellini did (i.e. distinctive use of arpeggio writing and enviously long melodies), and the music is always gorgeous, earning the admiration of particularly Verdi and even difficult to please Wagner.
Carmine Gallone made two versions of 'Casta Diva', not including the alternate-language version 'The Divine Spark'. One was from 1935 with Marta Eggerth, which didn't blow me away but it was decent and had enough good things to make it worth the look. The other is this one from 1954, which to me is the superior version with better production values and even more charm and passion, even though it doesn't have Eggerth.
As said with the 1935 version, anybody expecting historical accuracy are best reading a book on Bellini's life as it is near-completely romanticised here. Then again, accuracy or lack of it has rarely marred my enjoyment in watching a film, besides there are biopics out there that are not inaccurate but still manage to be great films or even masterpieces on their own ('Amadeus').
The film again is not without faults. It occasionally lacks momentum, occasionally feeling draggy to make up for the slightness of the story, and the dialogue rarely goes above the surface and has flimsy and less than flowing moments, though not always. Also got the sense that there was more to Bellini than what is shown in both versions of 'Casta Diva' but maybe that's just me.
On the other hand, 'Casta Diva's' beautifully produced all round. The costumes and settings are lavish and the colour photography is a visual feast and allows us to enjoy more the abstract uniqueness of some of the visuals. What makes it superior to the 1935 version is that the technical values are much better, clearer picture quality and the sound is much more resonant and doesn't distort or fuzz at all.
Bellini's music is never less than gorgeous, and we're not talking just about 'Norma's' "Casta Diva". It will make anybody who mostly only knows Bellini's most famous arias and such want to see the operas they come from in their entirety, anybody already familiar but can't get enough of them will be in heaven once more.
While the story is not perfect, it was made with its heart in the right place and has a lot of charm and passion. Bellini's personal life as presented here is interesting, once you forget that there are liberties all over, as are his struggles with romance and with 'Norma'. Gallone directs with technical efficiency and good conveying of drama.
Maurice Ronet is a better Bellini, portraying him with a little more understated charisma and passion. While one may miss Eggerth somewhat, at least we have a leading lady that matches her in grace, charm and nuance (plus more visual beauty) and with just as lovely a voice in Antonella Lualdi. The chemistry between the two leads is warmer and more passionate here than in the 1935 film.
Danilo Berardinelli is a firm, stoic Paganini, with the beginning showing some exquisite virtuosic violin playing (Paganini being the virtuosic violinist of his day and one of the most virtuosic in music history).
Rossini is here replaced by Gaetano Donizetti, another prominent and important opera composer, appealingly played by Fausto Tozzi.
In summary, superior version and while not perfect it is recommended providing that the lack of historical accuracy doesn't bother you too much. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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