There’s plenty of drama to spare when it comes to the world of opera. Occasionally, filmmakers have been directly inspired by the songbooks of classical composers, while others have looked to the performances and thundering music to create symbolic, contemporary interpretations. Opera is rich, profound source material. The opulent costumes and staging, the history, and the emotional stories are ripe for cinematic adaptations. We’ve collected a few of our favorites for your perusal in celebration of the 109th anniversary of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and the Blu-ray release of Don Giovanni. See what a behind-the-scenes documentary, a Werner Herzog epic, and other retellings of opera’s theatrical tales have to offer after the jump.
Operetta superstar Jacques Offenbach wanted to reestablish his career with Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) in 1877. The German-born French composer was facing adversity from Parisians after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. Unfortunately, he never lived to complete Hoffmann, leaving a family friend and his son to finish the composition. Enter legendary British filmmaking partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — collectively known as The Archers, the name of their production outfit — who created a 1951 adaptation of the tragic, dramatic tale. A poet’s conflict between his romantic life and his art leads viewers through stories about three great loves lost: Olympia (a wind-up doll), Giulietta (an alluring Venetian courtesan), and Antonia (an ill singer). Stella, his current love, is a prima ballerina who reminds him of the past. Like the duo’s devastatingly beautiful The Red Shoes — which also starred Moira Shearer — Hoffmann is loaded with fantastical, uncanny imagery. The grand spectacle had a profound effect on directors George Romero and Martin Scorsese who have praised its imagination, music, and stunning visuals.
Verdi’s La traviata is a story of doomed love set in 19th-century Paris. Director Philippe Béziat channeled the classic opera in Becoming Traviata, following Met Opera star Natalie Dessay as she intensely practiced for the demanding role of Violetta — the tragic courtesan ravaged by consumption. Her creative partnership with opera director Jean-Francois Sivadier is also the focus of the dramatic doc as he hones his new production for an open air, minimalist performance set in the 1940s and ‘50s. Becoming Traviata captures a wondrous view — from multiple perspectives — of the precision and artistry that goes into staging an opera.
Dario Argento helped elevate cinema to an art form with his stylish Italian horror tales Suspiria and Deep Red. His homage to Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera — which he later remade in 1998 and wasn’t nearly the success that Opera was — offered the director an opportunity to make observations about his career, critics, and fans (similar to Tenebrae’s real-life, obsessed fan influence). The opera within the film is Verdi’s Macbeth, which has a reputation of bringing bad luck to its players, but makes it an ideal inspiration for horror cinema. The theatrical curse followed Argento during the film’s production (his father died and Opera actor/friend Ian Charleson contracted AIDS). At the time, Opera was Argento’s most expensive production, and it shows in his lavish set design and costumes. The auteur’s inventive camerawork and POV shots — like the swooping, aerial view of a raven — make death look ravishing.
Ten well-known directors treated opera and film lovers to ten different ambitious adaptations of famous arias. As is the case with all anthologies, there are highs and lows, but it’s an opportunity to see film’s finest work in a short form. Jean-Luc Godard’s erotic retelling of Armide takes place in contemporary gymnasium. Ken Russell’s striking version of “Nessun dorma” allows us to see an accident victim’s surreal, shimmering hallucinations. Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg, Derek Jarman, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple, Bruce Beresford, Franc Roddam, and Bill Bryden are also featured.
Miloš Forman’s 1984 film about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart embellished the exceptional composer’s real-life (sometimes) rivalry with Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri. The tale of vengeance and obsession is told through flashbacks as Salieri sits in an insane asylum. Bringing the composer’s operatic works (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute) and their productions to the forefront adds further drama and magic. The film’s colorful, sumptuous magnificence matches Tom Hulce’s larger-than-life performance as the prolific genius.
When people talk about the greatest film adaptations of operas, Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 Swedish television production of The Magic Flute is always top of the list. Before Lifetime was making melodramas for the masses, Bergman’s film was breaking new ground as the first made-for-TV movie — and yet, the influential director used the platform to recreate a rich theatrical experience. He modeled his movie after the original 1791 production of Mozart’s oft-performed opera about a man searching for a woman. The Magic Flute was Mozart’s last work for the stage, and Bergman doesn’t let the audience forget its roots. After painstakingly recreating the setting of the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, Bergman offered viewers behind-the-scenes shots, snippets of audience members engaging with the film, and actors rushing to curtain call. The raw unveiling doesn’t take us out of the story. Instead, it makes Bergman’s film more philosophical.
Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi cast New Wave guitarist Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet) and English actress Sadie Frost — best known in the States for her role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula — as husband and wife in Magic Hunter. Carl Maria von Weber’s landmark German Romantic opera Der Freischütz shapes the allegory about a marksman haunted by a grave mistake. Flashbacks to the Middle Ages when Christians and pagans clashed, and the supernatural was a real threat, make for beautiful detours that follow the Virgin Mary and the devil into the woods. Watch for the dreamy scene when a group of fleeing rabbits find solace under the cloak of Mother Mary — a painting of her come to life.
It has been a centuries-long practice in Beijing for female theatrical roles to be played by men (things are somewhat different now). This extended to the Chinese capital’s 200-year-old opera scene and informed body horror director David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly. The filmmaker set his romantic tragedy during the 1960s and used David Henry Hwang’s gender-bending version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to tell the story of French diplomat Gallimard who falls in love with a Peking opera singer (played by John Lone). Cronenberg makes it clear that Gallimard wasn’t so much fooled by his lover, as he was having pathological fantasies. The tension fuels the dark drama.
A “pop movie inspired by a love of opera,” Jean-Jacques Beineix’s cult classic adaptation of Daniel Odier’s (aka Delacorta) novel of the same name is a true feast for the eyes. The stylish thriller features passages from various operas and a real-life opera singer in a lead role — who unwittingly becomes wrapped up in a bizarre bootleg/criminal ring. The most thrilling part of Diva, however, is its incredible sets, colorful characters, and the action. As Roger Ebert explained in his review:
“Most thrillers have a chase scene, and mostly they’re predictable and boring. Diva’s chase scene deserves ranking with the all-time classics, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The French Connection, and Bullitt. The kid rides his motorcycle down into the Paris Metro system, and the chase leads on and off trains and up and down escalators. It’s pure exhilaration, and Beineix almost seems to be doing it just to show he knows how. A lot of the movie strikes that note: Here is a director taking audacious chances, doing wild and unpredictable things with his camera and actors, just to celebrate moviemaking.”
Who else would make an incredible movie about a 19th-century rubber baron that wants to build an opera house in the middle of the South American jungle other than Werner Herzog? And who else would play such an eccentric and obsessive character other than Klaus Kinski? The collaboration is sublime, well-acted, and wonderfully surreal as we watch a 340-ton steamship being hauled over a mountain without the help of special effects. Wild-eyed Kinski making a river voyage with a wind-up gramophone blasting tenor Enrico Caruso is unforgettable. Fitzcarraldo is as operatic in scope as it is in sound.