Benoît Jacquot’s cinematic version of Puccini’s Tosca falls somewhere between the grandly naturalistic approach that Franco Zeffirelli used for Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello, and the egregious symbolism of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s rendition of Wagner’s Parsifal, where the metaphysical bric-a-brac managed to include at least one well-placed swastika. Jacquot is by turns subtle and ostentatious, and while some of his devices seem like — well, like devices — others are barely noticeable, or at least difficult to peel away from the meaning of the image.
Watching a movie with a definite style is often a two-track exercise; one is absorbing the narrative while on another level registering and assessing the director’s approach. For some, if the approach comes too much to the forefront of their awareness, the movie has failed — they feel they’ve sussed its tricky agenda. The best directorial flourishes, it would seem, must remain secondary in the scheme of presentation. Too much obvious artifice and the spell is broken.
One often hears about the problem of filming opera as though it were a medium with special difficulties to be ironed out and knottier than usual problems to be solved. In fact, opera would seem a natural for cinematic treatment because of its inherent expressionistic qualities that include plasticity of time, larger-than-life emotional content, and what Jacquot has called, referring to the primacy of feeling over psychology in Puccini, “curves of intensity in a landscape of passion.”
Jacquot knows where those curves intersect, at least in Tosca, and rather than try to modify the opera’s unreality or disguise its stage origins, he emphasizes its artificiality. This has the effect of putting the focus on the X-factor, that thing for which visual correlatives are so often lame, i.e. the music, both vocal and instrumental. The opera was prerecorded and then lip-synced during filming, and there are times when the performers don’t quite match up with the recording, something that Jacquot says he left in on purpose.
During the first and third acts there are brief insertions of documentary footage of the recording sessions and occasionally, when the libretto refers to a particular place, some discolored film of that place is shown. This may seem either pretentious or reckless. But by using these punctuating asides, he acknowledges — plays to, as it were — the viewer’s two-track endeavor of absorption by making the creation of the movie the opera’s backstory.
Meanwhile, as the actual opera proceeds, only the most uninvolved viewer could see it as merely the filming of a stage production. Both real locations and studio sets are used, though all the settings are larger than any studio could contain. In keeping with the mise-en-scène of heightened artificiality, no attempt is made to open up the proceedings, to give any indication that there’s a world outdoors teeming with life and sunshine.
Tosca, which one critic called “a shabby little shocker” after it was first produced in 1900, is a tale of love and murder spiced with more than a little sadism. Jacquot presents its principal players as exuberant personalities trapped in shadowy cavernous spaces, overheated to a near-hallucinatory extent, as represented by the delirious series of 360-degree pans around the villainous Scarpio that occur as he contemplates the imminent rape of Tosca.
Tosca and her lover Mario are performed by the very popular husband-and-wife team of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, who are more photogenic than many, if not most, opera stars and decent actors as well. Gheorghiu is especially adept at conveying Tosca’s mix of vanity and vulnerability. The demonic Scarpio is played by Ruggero Raimondi, an old hand at filmed opera. Having appeared in Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979) and Francesco Rosi’s Carmen (1984), he conveys, both vocally and dramatically, a rapacious sense of evil.
Those familiar with the opera should enjoy it, even if they resist Jacquot’s approach and feel that his up-front artifice gives away the game, while those who aren’t — which implies an unfamiliarity with operas in general — should give it a try. All that’s required is a little curiosity.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].