How about some aria fresca?
Quarantine’s got us all cooped up and miserable, sick and tired of the usual Netflix and Chill, and endless cooking and survival shows, and way over home workouts on Zoom and endless drizzly walks around the block with the not-so-cute-anymore dog. And the wife's already hung the handwritten on an old piece of cardboard in magic markers "HUSBAND FOR SALE" sign in the window.
So how about a bit of operatic drama thrown into the mundane mix for a change of pace? Even if you don’t like it and have never been, there’s such a treasure-trove of movies and performances, easily accessible online, to convert even the hardest hardened musical hearts, and to broaden almost any provincial’s definition of edutainment.
Here’s our eclectic, electric list:
1. I was fortunate enough when I was living in Milan in 1989 to see Riccardo Muti conduct Nabucco at La Scala during an Easter Sunday matinee performance – Muti, Verdi, and Milan at their blossoming sublime. Even though there’s nothing to compare to the thrill of being there, dressed up, anticipating, when that curtain between the you and the woohoo is lifted, and the first familiar notes transport you to another place, however briefly, there is a YouTube video of a 1987 La Scala/Muti performance that almost captures that exalt. Set aside your Sunday afternoon and enjoy. Funny sidebar: I was sitting in the second or third nosebleed balcony next to a woman of a certain age from Puglia, and she said to me after we had been chit-chatting for a while: “Ma, tu hai un accento strano.” I said “Anche tu.”
2. Puccini’s La Boheme is the most-performed opera in the world, and if you haven’t seen it live, you haven’t lived. Seriously, the best recording I can find, with subtitles, is the Teatro Real Madrid performance on Amazon Prime. So many of the arias from this timeless romance have become part of our pop culture that we don’t even know or care where they came from. No big names or famous anybody featured in this production, which is exactly how it should be: the opera is the star.
3. Breaking Away. This 1979 charmer about Bloomington, Indiana “cutter” Dave and his dream of becoming a bicycle racing champion is hilarious and inspiring – if you aren’t watching the end credits with a mile-wide smile on your face you’re either dead or dead and buried. What does it have to do with opera? Watch it and find out for yourself. Bonjour!
4. The Phantom of the Opera. Rent the 1925 black and white classic starring Lon Chaney. I watched this as a young child and the frightening and foreboding I felt way back then during the "unmasking" scene is still horrifying to me today. Haunting.
5. Carmen, based on the Prosper Merimee novel, and featuring the celebrated 1875 score by Georges Bizet, is conducted by Frederic Chaslin, and stars Beatrice Uria-Monzon. The 1997 RD Studio recording on YouTube of this Paris-Bastille Opera treasure I think best captures the spirit and excitement of a live performance, which in this time of the Corona Virus is the most we can hope for. BTW, it’s the second-most performed opera in the world, for good reason.
6. There’s a two-part documentary on YouTube called Baroque Duet, starring Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen Battle, that’s a cinema-verite look at the making of the record of the same name. Fascinating behind-the-scenes and biographical insights, full of heart, humor and stunning craft. Two virtuosos at the height of their extraordinary powers.
7. Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 film directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski that basically tells the single-minded story of rubber baron Brian Fitzgerald trying to lug a steamship over a mountain in Peru for I forget what reason. The soundtrack features performances by Enrico Caruso, and excerpts from the operas Ernani, Pagliacci, La Boheme, and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Kinski is a raving Teutonic lunatic, both on and off screen, and the making of the movie movie, My Best Friend, is train-wreck fascinating as well.
8. I re-watched the Academy Award-winning chestnut Moonstruck just the other day, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, and even though it’s not at all about opera, except for an unintentional double-date night at the Met – I was never here! – there are several Puccini arias sprinkled over the cannoli and ravioli, if you know what I mean. The witty script and postcard-perfect New York scenes hit your eye like a big pizza pie.
9. Diva is a 1981 French thriller directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, starring Wilehlmenia Wiggins as the American soprano Cynthia Hawkins, and Frederic Andrei as Jules, the opera-loving postman. Her performance of Ebben? Ne andro lontana from Catalani’s La Wally in the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, a theater in the round where I happened to see Carmen performed live that same year, is blinding and spellbinding – guaranteed to convert anyone sitting on or anywhere near the opera fence for life. The film itself is a departure from the ‘70s French realist style, and a return to the melodic colors of a new/old Gallic Hollywood, which has been dubbed cinema du look. Diva, initially panned, has since become a cult classic.

10. Two operatic shorts that’ll sucker punch all of you smack dab on your stir-crazy kissers are Long-Haired Hare, and Rabbit of Seville, both starring the redoubtable Bugs Bunny as a Stokowski-esque opera conductor. Still terrific fun and cartoonishly funny seventy years later.

11. A final tidbit treasure, also found on YouTube and this time showcasing the impregnable Pavarotti – forget The Three Tenors and their overhyped, safe, syrupy spectacles. Pavarotti sings an O Sole Mio duet in his hometown of Modena with Bryan Adams on a summer night that’s almost unbelievably beguiling. Don’t scoff – it cuts like a knife.


Photo: Milano-scalanotte ©Cc-by-sa-2.0
April 27, 2020 — Johnny Mustard