There are many lists available online that count the top ten ways in which opera is best used in film. Some good examples that appear on most people’s lists are Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now, Maria Callas’s rendition of La Mamma Morta from Andrea Chénier in Philadelphia or my favourite, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in The Godfather III. Whether these films use the music in one scene or weave it throughout the narrative, the version used remains traditional.
But I’d like to highlight some of the cases where opera has been used in a more unexpected and creative way. The first comes in the form of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris. In various scenes, the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann is used. It’s a really nice reference to the story, considering the opera is about a writer. In the hands of the Yerason Trio, who form part of the New York-based Cuban Charanga Orchestra – the romantic piece with all the beauty and angst of the fin de siècle is transformed into a lilting, rustic and more relatable tune. Click here to listen to the Midnight in Paris version of this song and then Here to listen to the orthodox version. The differences speak for themselves, and illustrate how critical interpretation, context and arrangement is.
The second example is from the Luc Besson film The Fifth Element. I’ll admit I didn’t know this bit of music was from an existing opera and was pleased to discover it was, simply because of the unique and innovative treatment. In the film, the blue alien Diva Plavalaguna, played and sung by Albanian soprano Inva Mula sings a plaintive aria. The aria is actually “Il dolce suono mi colpi’, also known as The Mad Scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s a performance that is historically famous as a show piece for coloratura sopranos like Maria Callas and Dame Joan who wish to impress their audience with expressive agility.
What begins in the film’s scene as a fairly traditional rendition becomes a hyper-futuristic showcase of extraordinary alien aptitude as the blue diva riffs on the theme and displays unearthly vocal talent. Here is a clip from 1962, with Joan Sutherland singing the Mad Scene from this opera and Here is the same song seen through the lense of Besson’s cinematic vision.
The final example is perhaps less obvious but just as powerful. In Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, the film’s opening credits show a series of flowers unfolding to the opening phrases of Charles Gounod’s Faust. The first scene shows the characters enjoying the opera, as much a part of the evening’s entertainment as the performers on stage. Bernstein and Scorsese together use the music to guide the establishing scene. Bernstein follows on from the Faustian Love Duet with his own score. It is a seamless flow and you’re never quite sure where Gounod ends and Bernstein begins. The operatic vocals slide into a ghostly echo while Bernstein’s score transcends with delicacy and restraint and the film’s action shifts from the protagonists on stage to those in the audience. It seems that Bernstein uses themes from Faust to inform other themes in the film’s score as well, which incidentally, is superb.