Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Rigoletto on Film: I

 We choose Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), as the first entry of our new format ( Rigoletto was the sixteenth of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas, and the first of the extraordinary trio (together with Il Trovatore and La Traviata) composed between 1851-1853. The opera was wildly successful at its Venice premiere and has been a fixture of the core repertoire of the world’s lyric stages ever since.

 Ponnelle was among the most inventive and successful director/designers of his generation. He worked extensively in Europe and in the United States, leaving a rich legacy of opera on television and film much of which is available for purchase as DVDs and accessible for streaming on xxYoutube. His stunning cinematic adaptations also include Madama Butterfly and Le Nozze di Figaro.

The question raised most urgently by our subject is this: How and to what effect does the experience of opera on film, or better, opera as cinema, that is freed from the constraints of the proscenium, differ from that of opera viewed and heard in the opera house or, indeed, in the movie house during a live telecast? Cinema’s camera movement and the processes of studio editing focus and refocus our gaze to a far greater degree than can lighting and direction for the stage or the movement afforded stage-bound television cameras.

Two elements of cinema privileged in its powerful vocabulary begin to answer the question: cinema’s ability to effect radical as well as subtle shifts in point of view both through camera distance and angle and through editing; its capacity to shoot both natural and built environments. These devices, mediated by the masterful hand of Ponnelle, further the suspension of disbelief. They conspire to counter the artifices of sung dialogue, of stage sets, and of the compression of a breathless narrative that unfolds in what appears to be a matter of days. Camera movement and editing prevail in many scenes, most emphatically in this nine-minute Act 2 sequence that captures the complexity of Rigoletto’s being.

 In this clip, Rigoletto swings from despair at the disappearance of his daughter, to rage at the courtiers who tricked him into abetting her abduction, to contrition as he pleads for her return, to horror on discovering that she has been raped by his master, the Duke of Mantua. The musical and dramatic gestures, thrilling hurdles for the baritone (here the excellent singer/actor Ingvar Wixell), find their reflection in Ponnelle’s visual gestures. The tragic figure of the court jester as he staggers across the curved balcony is intercut with shots of the courtiers who stare from below. Roving cameras catch the action in the foreground without losing sight of the elaborate architecture of the background, the late 16th-century Teatro all’Antica of the northern Italian town of Sabbioneta. At the very moment Rigoletto grasps that his beloved Gilda has been deposited in the Duke’s chambers, that the trap has succeeded, he is himself trapped by the camera against an unyielding wall. Shot and counter-shot of the Duke’s curtained bed and Rigoletto’s fury conspire with the music and libretto to tell the painful tale. Then, in a shot of prolonged duration, Rigoletto, proceeding on his knees from courtier to courtier, begs for their pity. The bed curtains part to reveal the Duke’s brazen leer in shocking closeup. The image of Gilda, face down on the bed, unleashes her father’s wrath, now laced with shame. That same image excites the courtiers’ obscene curiosity. In the end, the series of angle/reverse angle shots positions Rigoletto as dominant. He dispatches his tormentors who exit in a mocking dance.

In our next post, again devoted to the Verdi/Ponnelle Rigoletto, we will look closely at the film’s climax for the effect of location shooting on the experience of the operaphile at the movies.


Monday, August 10, 2020

How to Access Subtitles in Rigoletto Post

 If  you do not see subtitles when you open the link to the Rigoletto performance we included in our last post, just click on "cc" (closed caption) in the lower right-hand corner of the video.R

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A New Turn for OperaPost: Opera on Film

In this time of darkened theatres whose reopening for the 2020-2021 season is very much in question, especially in the United States, we propose to add a second format to our blog. Ours is an attempt to compensate, in some small way, for the irreplaceable live performance.

By opera on film we mean not the telecast of staged performances, such as the Met Live in HD, but performances that are genuinely cinematic, that is freed from the confines of the stage and directed and produced as movies. Two weeks in advance of publishing a new post, we will provide a link to the subtitled opera on film that we have chosen for its musical and dramatic qualities. Our intention is to give those who wish sufficient time to view the movie before receiving our post. 

Our first entry will be Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1983 film of Verdi's Rigoletto. Director Ponnelle's locations are the historical sites of Parma and Mantua among Northern Italian cities. The first-rank cast principals are Luciano Pavarotti, Edita Gruberova, and Ingvar Wixell. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here is the link.


So, happy viewing and listening. We would appreciate your comments regarding our blog's "new turn" and the Rigoletto post that will be published on or about August 22.