““La Bohème” by Franco Zeffirelli” on Arte: a look back at the birth of a filmed opera

““La Bohème” by Franco Zeffirelli” on Arte: a look back at the birth of a filmed opera

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The film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019) was not the first to bring a lyrical work to the big screen: this premiere is attributed to Max Ophuls with The Sold Bride (1932), according to the comic opera by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. But his Bohème , by Giacomo Puccini, is one of the first opera films to have benefited from luxurious artistic conditions.

We note its beautiful line-up of singers, including the soprano Mirella Freni as Mimi, the Cousette with a fateful fate (her favorite role), and Gianni Raimondi, who plays her lover, the poet Rodolfo. The Italian tenor stood out opposite Maria Callas in two opera productions directed by Luchino Visconti, La Traviata , by Verdi, in 1956, and Anna Bolena , by Donizetti, the following year. Without forgetting Herbert von Karajan, at the head of the Milan Scala Orchestra, all recorded with the sound of an underground car park.

The 1965 film, which is inspired by the production that Zeffirelli signed in 1963 for La Scala and the Vienna Opera, is the subject of this new issue of the documentary series Les Grands Moments de la musique , entrusted to Anaïs Spiro. We hear the words of many witnesses, including Marco Gandini, former assistant to the director, the South African soprano Pretty Yende, his Italian colleague Mariam Battistelli and the French tenor Roberto Alagna.

Catholic and reactionary

After a quarter of an hour, acts of sexual harassment allegedly committed by Zeffirelli, denounced after his death, are mentioned. “We can no longer ignore these things today,” says the director, Ella Gallieni (the same one who will cry with tears at the end of the documentary over Mimi’s death). But the point, which is neither precise, nor sourced, nor developed, falls like a hair in the soup.

Because there is something to be said about the character of the homosexual, Catholic and reactionary director, who abused drink and insulted the singers (Roberto Alagna confirms this). Zeffirelli could also indulge in defamatory remarks towards his colleagues: Luc Bondy will pay the price when his staging (2009) of Tosca , by Puccini, replaces (for a time only) that of Zeffirelli (1985) at the Metropolitan Opera ( Met) in New York, where the Italian staged eleven opera productions between 1964 and 1998.

The documentary, quite weak, abounds in superficial and imprecise comments: we sometimes no longer know whether we are talking about the staging for La Scala in Milan (in 1963) or the film itself. Mariam Battistelli adds further confusion by confusing the 1963 production with the one that Zeffirelli designed for the Met in 1981 – where it is still on view. The use of extracts from a documentary about the latter ends up confusing the point.

Mainly hagiographic (only the synchronization problems, in fact quite conspicuous, are underlined), Anaïs Spiro’s film gives a large place to musical extracts. But we regret that Arte did not instead choose to broadcast Zeffirelli’s film in its entirety and follow it with a documentary offering a more in-depth analysis and a broader perspective of the framework of the filmed opera.

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