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Friday, January 14, 2011

Old school "Traviata" - La Traviata marathon

On a whim I decided to watch a video tonight that I hadn't watched in a long time -- the 1968 film of La Traviata with Anna Moffo. Having just seen the Willy Decker La Traviata, I was surprised at how many changes there have been to La Traviata over the years, and decided that I'd do a video survey of La Traviata on video over the years. Maybe I'll do this with a few more operas in the future. The first film in my survey was made in 1968.


The 1968 film with Anna Moffo was made by her then-husband, Italian film director Mario Lanfranchi. In later years Moffo would complain bitterly that the marriage turned out to be a nightmare, with her Svengali-like husband overworking her ruthlessly. By the time they divorced in the early 1970s, her voice was a shred of the lovely instrument it had been in the mid-1950s. Nevertheless, opera lovers have to feel a degree of gratitude that Lanfranchi did make all those films with his wife, for they preserved some of her loveliest work.

As was the fashion at the time, this is one of those films which was lip-synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Preservations of live performances were considered more problematic back then. But on DVD, the poor synching of soundtrack and the singers' movements is more obvious. A particularly aggregious example is the Act 2, Scene 2 concertato -- at a time when Violetta's voice is supposed to be soaring over the chorus and orchestra, and in opera houses you can always see the Violettas straining to be heard, Moffo is reclined on a couch, eyes and mouth closed. Also, the lip-synching always looks slightly artificial and emotionally flat. It's a problem that persists to this day in lip-synched films.



The production spared no expense in presenting a world of great beauty that really doesn't capture the seediness behind the courtesan lifestyle. I feel as if directors have to emphasize at the very least that the lifestyle Violetta leads is not a healthy or happy one, and that it's literally killing her. Traditonal productions can do this too. For instance, George Cukor in Camille set several scenes that made it clear how fake Marguerite's social circle is, and what a nasty man Marguerite had to sleep with (the Baron) in order to finance her lifestyle. But Lanfranchi's La Traviata seems like a world of endless parties and balls -- not a bad life. It starts in Violetta's house, and the house is richly furnished, with a long dinner table, plentiful champange glasses, a cozy-looking fireplace, large Parthenon-like marble poles with some gold-gild, and elaborately draped couches. In Act 2, Violetta's little place in the countryside is more like a Petit Trianon-like estate. One wonders why Violetta has so many portraits hanging on the wall at all times in her residences. Who would they be of -- her ex lovers? Flora's ball is set in a shock of red -- red wallpaper, red carpet, red ballgowns. I always find it weird how directors like to show how Flora is more successful in her profession than Violetta -- why is her house always a real mansion, and her party the place where people are really dressed up? The last act is set in Violetta's bedroom, but she seems comfortable, not desperate. She's sleeping on satin pillows and sheets. The "venti luigi" could have been a lot more had they just decided to sell some of the furniture. Overall, I think the production is "old fashioned" but inoffensive, but probably not reflective of the bare-bones sets that were the norm in Italy post-war. It seems as if the ornate, fussy Italian opera films were almost a response to the flapping backdrops and flimsy cardboard sets that are more obvious in the live films that have been preserved from that era. In Lanfranchi's film you can see a lot of Franco Zeffirelli's style.

Despite the lavish sets, the camera immediately focuses on Anna Moffo, and for the rest of the film, it follows Moffo relentlessly, so the rest of the characters really become extremely secondary, as do the sets. Lanfranchi demands that you look at Moffo, Moffo, and more Moffo. Anna Moffo is first dressed in a lovely pink gown, then for "Ah forse lui/Sempre libera" she's changed into a more revealing chemise. In Act 2, she's dressed in a prim gray dress, with her black hair streaming down her face. The relentless closeups show off the sixties-style eye makeup -- heavy Cleopatra-like false eyelashes and all. In Act 2, scene 2, she's decked out in the tradional black ballgown that really show off her sloping shoulders and beautiful face. In Act 3 she's in a lovely white nightgown, with her beautiful dark hair falling down her back. Dying was never so pretty. Even when she dies the camera focuses on her wide-open eyes. You expect them to close, but they never do. Kind of creepy.



Alfredo (Franco Bonisolli) and Germont (Gino Bechi) sing with little beauty of style or tone. Bonisolli is an unusual choice for Alfredo -- more vocally blustery in style in a role that's traditionally been given to lyric tenors. His is an impressive instrument, just not the type you'd expect as Alfredo. Bechi barks his way through the role and really sounds bored. But worse, they both project a kind of emotional blankness that maybe was a result of their knowing that this was essentially a vanity project for the star soprano. Their cabalettas are both cut, as was the custom of the time.

Anna Moffo's Violetta, however, was one of her vocally loveliest creations, and if her voice has some shrillness during "Sempre libera" and a surprising thinness of tone at other times, it's still a beautiful, rich, dark voice. You can hear though how by 1968 the top register had separated from the rest of her voice, and the E-flat in "Sempre libera" is a scream. One is impressed by her simple, straightforward style -- there are no hammy vocal "effects," no excessive playing around with dynamics, as one is likely to hear in a Violetta today. It's refreshing to hear the part really sung -- I particularly love her "Addio del passato" -- no precious pianissimo, no "floating" of the voice, just an unaffected rendition. Her dark, round tone and unpretentious way of singing kind of remind me of Anna Netrebko. Dramatically she's less believable though. The heavy makeup she wears throughout the opera doesn't change, and so she looks healthy even if she's supposed to look ever more sickly. She seems to have been instructed not to move her face for the sake of maximizing beauty at all times. Her Violetta also seems extremely wholesome and basically unphased by all the drama in her life -- she lacks the moody intensity of Greta Garbo's film interpretation, or the kind of raw emotionalism Callas apparently brought to the role. One wonders if a more objective, demanding director could have drawn an edgier performance from her.

I am grateful though for this film, for sentimental reasons. I simply love Anna Moffo, and if this film isn't the most exciting film in the world, it is a nice relic of Moffo's most famous role. The video is available on VAI.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a very fair and objective review of the film. I too am an ardent fan of Anna Moffo and I wish that her films had been made by better directors than her husband Mario Lanfranchi. If anything each successive film was worse than the previous, her first (a TV production of Madama Butterfly) being farsuperior to the last (Lucia di Lammermoor, made in the early 1970's which is pretty woeful). It's surprising to me that it took so long to make this film - Moffo had established a reputation as a leading Violetta several years earlier (her Met debut was in this role in 1959). Perhaps her busy schedule did not allow it any sooner. I never had the privilege of seeing Moffo live, but the overwhelming impression of those who did seems to be that she was a fine dramatic actress, at least on stage. In this Traviata film that doesn't come across. The Stratas / Domingo film is more satisfying in that respect. As you have said, Lanfranchi seemed more concerned with presenting his wife as the great beauty of the opera world than with creating a great film. A wasted opportunity. I have often wondered how Moffo's career would have developed had she not married Lanfranchi. We will never know.

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