Thursday, August 25, 2011

Opera Sneaks Into Luchino Visconti's "Il Gattopardo"

Listen to Verdi's Waltz in F Major
scored by Nina Rota.
This evening, Turner Classic Movies aired the full-length refurbished version of Luchino Visconti's opulent 1963 film Il Gattopardo featuring Burt Lancaster (Don Fabrizio Corbera - Prince of Salina), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedàra) and Alain Delon (Tancredi Falconeri). The film is based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel of the same name about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of the "Risorgimento"when the aristocracy lost its grip and the middle classes rose and formed a unified, democratic Italy. Il Gattopardo translates directly from Italian as "The Serval," but the film was released in France as Le Guépard ("The Cheetah") and as The Leopard in the UK and USA. The work was awarded the Palme d'Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. Leave it to Visconti who famously directed 19 opera productions (five with Maria Callas alone), to include some music of Verdi into his film. The film's score was composed by Nina Rota who managed to unearth Verdi's Valzer in fa maggiore, originally written "per cembalo" when the composer was in his youth, and orchestrate it for key sequences in the hour-long
ball scene. "The Valzer was discovered by Rota in the possession of a Roman antiquarian, and was orchestrated for strings, flutes, and piano for the film soundtrack. "The Valser begins on a shot of farmers working on a hillside and follows the cross-fade into a large ballroom. The guests are greeted at a reception line, people gossip, ladies fan themselves (the Sicilian night is very hot), Colonel Pallipacini and his officers are introduced to the notables. The music flows from the balconies into a garden where the Colonel, surrounded by admiring women hanging on his every word, speaks of Garibaldi as looking like an archangel: 'I wept like a little baby.'
Verdi's waltz cadences at the end of the Colonel's exaggerated speech, and another waltz with lovely romantic harmonies in the style of the period by Nino Rota, begin as the scene shifts back into the ballroom. This piece is followed by a wonderful folk-style mazurka in a minor key. Angelica asks the Prince to dance with her and back in the ballroom the Verdi waltz is struck up once again."

Two excerpts from Verdi's La Traviata appear in the film as well. Click on the highlighted link in the description below each photo to launch a video clip of each particular scene:
When Don Fabrizio and his family return to Donnafugata they are greeted by a brass band playing the women's chorus "Noi siamo zingarelle."

The family immediately enters a church in a processional while a young organist plays the "Preludio" from Act 1 (the theme appears again later in the opera as "Amami, Alfredo" sung by Violetta).

Visconti even manages to get a little bel canto Bellini in when a soldier sings "Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni," Rodolfo's aria from the first act of La Sonnambula.
[Source, Source, Source, Source]

Enjoy a detailed description of the film (possible spoilers), as well as commentary and photos after the jump.

"Based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel, Visconti’s The Leopard recounts the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy in 1860-1862 during the period of the Risorgimento. “The Resurgence” was the movement for Italian unification that culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. For its American release, the film’s US distributor, 20th Century Fox, shortened The Leopard’s
running time from 185 minutes to 161, and included a dubbed English-language soundtrack. In 1983, Fox rereleased the film with its far superior original Italian soundtrack and at its original length. In 2004, after a major overhaul of the original camera negative, Criterion issued a DVD edition and now a Blu-ray upgrade of its 2004 transfer. The current copy is beautiful. The Leopard is the tale of Don Fabrizio Corbera, the charismatic Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), who witnesses with philosophical resignation the passing of the feudal era as the Italian peninsula is united for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. In its opening shot, the camera pans the prince’s grand estate. Inside the palace, his family is in morning prayer. But the rebel Garibaldi disrupts the ritual. His Red Shirts are in the process of defeating the Bourbon troops and occupying the Sicilian capital of Palermo in the name of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a united Italy. Fabrizio sees the writing

on the wall. The poor string up the town’s Bourbon mayor. The prince says to Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli), the family cleric: '[The] Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class have not. Any palliative which may give us another hundred years of life is like an eternity to us.' The priest fears for the fate of the Church, and the possibility of the seizure of some of its vast lands by the new regime, pointing to its role in placating the poor. The prince soon learns that his beloved nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) is fighting with Garibaldi’s forces. If the nobility refuses to accept the Kingdom of Italy, insists the young man, 'They will foist a republic on us.' He goes on, 'If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.' This is a central concern of the film, highlighting the aborted, ultimately anti-popular nature of Italian unification, with all sorts of implications for subsequent Italian history. Visconti leaned heavily on the
writings of Antonio Gramsci on this score. The prince realizes the truth and practicality of Tancredi’s words. This is a remarkable scene in which Visconti uses mirrors to highlight a historic (and generational) transformation. When Tancredi enters the room, his face fills the mirror Fabrizio is using to shave, as if he is pushing his uncle out of the way. Later, the prince stands before a full-length mirror. His presence is commanding. But close by, Tancredi’s face is shown as a dark profile in a third mirror, hints of the Angel of Death. In fact, life’s succulence seems absent in the arid terrain through which the prince and his entourage journey to their summer villa in Donnafugata. On arrival, they are greeted by a new social elite represented by the mayor, Don Calógero Sedàra (Paolo Stoppa), a wealthy businessman and landowner. A former Garibaldini, he is a member of the rising bourgeoisie that preys on the distressed aristocracy and now capitalizes on the chaos
sown by Garibaldi’s forces. While the prince exudes gravitas, Calógero is a shifty social climber. Inside the church, the nobles sit in their allocated pews. There is a riveting shot panning the faces of the members of the family. Worn-out and dusty, they are arrayed like marble or stone figures in a family mausoleum. Don Calógero’s beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) sweeps Tancredi off his feet. The union of a member of a nouveau riche with a penniless noble is fortuitous, as the prince recognizes. This, despite the crudeness of the arrivistes—for example, when Angelica emits a bawdy, drawn-out laugh at dinner, echoing down the palace’s hallowed corridors. In the town hall, Fabrizio toasts the rigged plebiscite in favor of a united Italy under a portrait of Garibaldi. In this sequence, the new Italy’s tricolors are featured in the drinks and candles. Fireworks light the sky; in the foreground, the prince gazes pensively into the void. When Tancredi and Angelica, now engaged, explore the deserted parts of the palace, in another unforgettable scene, mirrors again come into play. This time to reflect decomposition: objects that
have been discarded and mothballed. ('[L]ittle powdered demons had been put to flight…as sleeping embryos, hibernating under piles of dust,' Lampedusa writes in his novel.) The vast, labyrinthine dimensions of the palace, the countless empty rooms (many of which have not been used for centuries), the enormous canvases scattered about, the layer of dust and neglect…everything speaks to a ruling class that is wasteful, careless, obsolete, if cultured and gracious. Shifting with the tides, Tancredi now supports King Emmanuel’s army, which will eventually rout Garibaldi as he marches on Rome in an attempt to force the Papal States into the Kingdom. This ends the revolutionary phase of the Risorgimento. Tancredi, the charming and wily opportunist, is parlaying the (declining) fortunes of his family into political power. Law and order is just what is needed for Sicily, he says, as some of Garibaldi’s men are executed off-screen. Approached to serve in the new
government, Fabrizio responds: 'But I cannot accept, I am a member of the old ruling class. Inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and tied to it by chains of decency if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must realize by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite to guide others.' The film is bracketed by two operatically staged events: the battle scenes in Palermo, ending in Garibaldi’s victory, and the grand ball towards the film’s end. Both are presented in blazing, artificial colors. The first, the explosive birth of a society; the second, a dimming universe. Lancaster is
particularly affecting at delivering the feel of one being drained of vital fluids. The decadence and decline of the feudal class is emphasized throughout the ball’s long sequence. Looking upon a group of young women acting foolishly, Fabrizio remarks that 'frequent marriages between cousins does not improve the stock.' The prince is something of a renaissance man. His last moments on screen speak to his interest in astronomy as he finds solace in the apparently static order of the firmament: 'Oh faithful star, when will you give me an appointment less ephemeral, far away from all this, in your own region of perennial certitude?' Along with a new order come sciences that already reveal there is as little certitude in the heavens as there is on earth. It should be noted The Leopard has its light touch: Fabrizio speaks of his religious wife and his need to cavort with prostitutes: 'I’ve had with her, seven [children]; and never once have I seen her navel.' To Father Pirrone’s embarrassment at seeing the prince lift himself out of a tub, the latter says: 'You’re used to naked souls, naked bodies are far more innocent.' The priest is one of the film’s semi-comic characters, and not portrayed simplistically. Visconti’s epic is a work of astonishing proportions. The breadth and depth of his treatment of the subject matter is on a scale almost unimaginable in recent cinema. History lives through every pore of the film. Visconti ambitiously tries to present a historical
panorama, complete with its political and cultural transformations, bringing to life real people, not fleshed-out social types. As the bridge between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, Tancredi’s political makeover is especially nuanced. It is difficult to fully grasp the film’s complexity, its array of landscapes and figures responding to a transitional epoch. The ambitiousness, at times, makes the work a bit stiff and unwieldy. It is trying to do so much. But one must acknowledge Visconti’s determination to address in a profound way the interplay between the political and the personal and the rarity of the endeavor. One feels at times that Visconti, like Lampedusa, lacks the necessary critical distance from this leading figure and even, at times, shares his sense of historical and personal resignation. With Visconti, this is less excusable. The film largely dwells inside the prince, bathing in his fascinating
qualities and observations. We see him, but there are other things we need to see as well. The Leopard’s shared intimacy with Fabrizio at times bleeds into its social outlook, and one cannot help but feel that Visconti’s own disappointment with developments in post-war Italy—the restoration of capitalism, the inability of the working class to take power—comes into play here. The population is largely passive, underscored in the scenes in which Fabrizio’s servant and hunting guide Don Ciccio sings the praises of his noble masters and the old order. This is only one figure, and no doubt based on a real social layer in Sicily, but as virtually the only 'popular' figure singled out, the choice is somehow revealing. With the exception of the sequence in which the poor side with Garibaldi in Palermo, the peasants are shown quietly tilling the land in the midst of continual tension. Some of this is included in Visconti’s choice of subject matter—a book that deals with a very stagnant locale and social mentality, described by Fabrizio as 'a terrifying insularity of mind.' Again, the film’s refrain is 'to stay as they are, things will have to change.'
Fabrizio notes that his aristocratic class will be replaced by 'jackals,' and there is an element of truth in that. He continues, 'And the whole lot of us, leopards, jackals and sheep”—the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the population—”we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.' Lampedusa, the novelist, who came from this aristocratic background, would naturally have his own view of things, but Visconti seems uncomfortably close at times to suggesting that we should share it too. In any event, this is an enormous film, in an excellent format. One can only recommend it highly." [Source]

BONUS TRIVIA: A piece of art that is prominently featured in the film with heavy symbolism is Jean Baptiste Greuze's 1778 portrait titled The Punished Son.

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