A Day at the DFT Opera

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In some ways, the Detroit Film Theatre’s film presentation of the opera La bohème on Oct. 24, 2009 reminded me of one of those optical illusion pictures where your eyes keep switching between views of one image or another.

Was it an opera done in the style of a movie? Or was it a film with dialogue and music taken from an opera?

Either way, this masterwork by Giacomo Puccini was superb entertainment, in a unique event that showcased the best of both worlds from film and opera. You might not have had the immediacy and crowd reaction of a filmed theater opera, but you did have an expanded image of the opera’s story that was not limited by a theater stage.

As I looked forward to seeing La bohème, which launched the DFT’s “World Opera in Cinema” series, I didn’t think about it the same way that I thought about other DFT films. I didn’t think so much about the story, the director, the country where it took place, or the actors or actresses (well, I might have thought a little about the striking beauty of female lead Anna Netrebko).

The whole operatic experience drew me to La bohème, and I looked forward to giving my emotions a strenuous workout over the 109-minute length of the film.

All week long, I had listened to a 1959 recording of La bohème, featuring the famous soprano Renata Tebaldi. This recording was described by The Viking Opera Guide (1993) as a “regally cast, thoroughly Italianate reading.” This preview of the opera familiarized me with the surging emotions, playful melodies, and dramatic plot turns of La bohème, which premiered in 1896.

On this early Saturday afternoon, I was filled with anticipation as I drove to the DFT, on a partly sunny day decorated with the glowing reds, oranges, and yellows of fall color at its peak. Saturday afternoon has become a regular time for opera listening for many years, thanks to the long-running radio broadcasts of The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

When I walked into the DFT auditorium, I was greeted by the DFT screen at its widescreen width. On the screen were the words “World Opera in Cinema,” in ornate script, instead of the usual advertisements for the Detroit Institute of Arts and the DFT. Quiet piano music filled the air. After a friendly welcome by DIA Film Curator Elliot Wilhelm, we entered the bohemian life of Paris, where Rodolfo and Mimi hooked up in their beautiful and tragic love story.

Musical Drama

The two leads gave compelling performances. Anna Netrebko had a quiet, serious smile that anchored the dramatics and frivolity, and contrasted with the free-spirited personalities of the four bohemians. The heavy, shadowed features of male lead Rolando Villazón played off well against the pure, sensual beauty of Netrebko (who in real life was pregnant when La bohème was filmed).

With almost all of the dialog in song, I realized that films aren’t usually pitched to such a consistently high emotional level. I thought back to the DFT’s screening of another movie where music carried the dialog, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), starring Catherine Deneuve. The main musical themes of La bohème were repeated several times, propelling us along, connecting different parts of the film.

I was very impressed with the camera setups, which allowed us to see the moods and reactions of the different actors, no matter where they were positioned on the screen. I’d guess that the standard staging directions for La bohème helped director Robert Dornheim with these setups. The high definition photography gave dramatic focus to all of the actors.

The film ended on a powerfully sad note. The DFT audience applauded the movie with appropriately subdued enthusiasm.

For me, it was another high note of a very musical weekend at the Detroit Movie Palaces. On Friday, Oct. 23, at the Redford Theatre, I saw the 1920 silent movie version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (starring John Barrymore). While watching La bohème, I found interesting similarities between the music-driven, visually-oriented dramatics of the two films.

And on Monday, Oct. 26, at the Michigan Theater, I enjoyed the famous 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, the latest in the Monday night American Musicals Series sponsored by the University of Michigan. Amidst the dynamic music and dancing, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds found the lasting romantic happiness that eluded Rodolfo and Mimi in La bohème.

Also, a few hours after seeing La bohème, I returned to the DFT to see Laila’s Birthday, about life in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. It was another one of those intrguing glimpses into a foreign culture that I’ve been privileged to experience many times in my 21 years of visits to the DFT.

Several more opera presentations are planned at the DFT through the end of January. Unlike La bohème, they will take you to famous opera houses around the world, including La Scala in Milan, Italy. The next film, Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, will be screened at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

That prompted Elliot Wilhelm, in his introduction to La bohème, to joke that the DFT will give you the chance to tear yourself away from all of the relatives that you love to spend time with on holidays, and still have time to wake up at 5 a.m. on Friday for the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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