Songs of praise for Zeffirelli
EVEN TO a lifelong operagoer, opera may be a less than satisfactory medium. Its complex amalgam of music, drama and mime can be boring, difficult or even ridiculous. The fact remains that when a proper fusion of its elements is brought off by conductor, director and singers an operatic performance can achieve a magic beyond the reach of any of its elements.
If this is true of grand opera, the various efforts to translate opera into cinema have been even less satisfactory. But if you have any doubt of the popularity of opera in London, go and watch — or join — the crowds of enthusiasts swarming into Zeffirelli's film of Verdi's La Traviata ("U", Odeon, Haymarket). Not for months have I seen such crowds thronging a West End cinema.
Although Zeffirelli declares that he wrote, devised and designed this Traviata as an opera-film, not just a filmed opera, he has not solved such basic problems as the adjustment of time-space relationship in music and cinema. Although many scenes mistakenly aim at realism, I was always aware of watching characters lost in the vast curtained spaces of the Met.
Nevertheless and despite inadequacies and reservations, enjoyed this Traviata better than I expected from the first critical objections to its vulgarisation of Verdi. The original setting of The Lady of the Camellias among nineteenth century courtesans might be called vulgar but "Traviata" is the most "accessible" of operas and everybody knows the story from reading the novel, from seeing the play (perhaps with Feuillere) or from the film of Garbo's Camille.
There are excesses in the production: over-decorated and with too many people (gypsies etc) and too much extraneous noise. But the principals are first-rate. Covent Garden's favourite tenor, Placido Domingo is a splendid Alfredo. Soprano, Teresa Stratas a very competent Violeta, who manages to look plausibly as though dying of consumption and the American baritone, Cornel MacNeill, distinguished and sympathetic father.
I had already seen Little Ida or Growing Up ("18" Minema) without being greatly impressed, except by the usual uncannily brilliant performance of a very small star. Seeing it again, however, I found this honest and sensitive film of a little Norwegian girl's growing up in wartime Norway illuminating and poignant. For little blonde Ida is exposed to the solitude and hostility of life as an evacuee with a mother charged with fraternising with the Germans. Appropriately the film is supported at the Minema by Tribute, a short made by James Quinn of the embroidery of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy, a sort of reversal of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Little Ida tells the story of a solitary little girl's growing up. The Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu's classic Tokyo Story ("U", Gate Notting Hill) shows us a whole Japanese family going through life from soon after the oracle to the grave, as they gather at mother's death, revealing their varying degrees of selfishness, greed, tolerance or devotion. The first part of the film is tremendously slow, but it goes on to reach depths of serenity and truth in this family portrait, until one by one they go away leaving father alone again in contemplation of a family curiously Westernised down to the mourning arm-band and the keening of "Massa's in de cold cold ground".
Betrayal ("15" Curzon) is the clever film version scripted by Pinter himself of a Pinter play I have not seen. It is, as might be expected strictly-theatrical with Pinter's eliptical dialogue and back-to-front narrative structure. For all takes place in the apartment inhabited by an adulterous couple (Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodges) while we progress backwards (two years ago—one year earlier, Venice etc) to the beginning of the affair to discover how they left their respective spouses. The acting is of course first-class, with Ben Kingsley as the woman's publisher-husband. But although Jeremy Irons tears passion to tatters, he never really convinced me he loved the lady.
I was disappointed too by Diane Kury's At First Sight ("15", Academy One) having admired an earlier movie by her. The story is not one of love at first sight in the normal meaning, but of the instant companionship struck up by two married women, one a Polish Jewess (Isabelle Huppert) the other French (Miou-Miou), who mistakenly get interned in Vichy France during the war. I do believe that almost every woman has a streak of feminism but without going to the extent of women's lib — or of the stupidity of expecting their husbands to put up with their obsession with each other to the neglect of their husbands.
As for Spellers ("18", Classic, Tottenham Court Road) what a surprising people are the Dutch! Like most Britons, 1 grew up thinking the Dutch a rather stolid, serene people, smooth like their cheeses of a Vermeer still life. Developments in the Dutch church in recent years have shaken this image but not as violently or shockingly as it is shaken by this saga of gangs of motor-bike boys and girls indulging in excesses of explicit sex and sadism beyond any I have seen on the screen.