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Maria Callas - La Divina - A Portrait… a film by Tony Palmer

DVD (also available on video) * aspect ratio, 4:3 * sound, Dolby stereo * PAL * region encoding 2, 5, 6 * languages - English & German * subtitles in French *
Arthaus Musick KAT. - NR 100 052 [91:27]
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Tony Palmer is the highly respected film maker who has concentrated through-out his career on classical music documentaries and dramas, making such films as the nine hour Wagner with Richard Burton and England, My England, about Handel. He has made acclaimed documentaries on a range of subjects, including perhaps most memorably, Sibelius. This 1987 production is a feature length television documentary comprised of archive footage and new interviews with people who knew Maria Callas.

After a rather disorientating opening five minutes, in which the film seems to cut about at random to no other purpose than to establish that Maria Callas became a legend in her own lifetime - lauded as the finest soprano of the century, reviled by others - the film settles down into standard documentary fashion, which is to say old fashioned conventional documentary style, before gimmicky presentation became de rigueur. We learn the bare outline of Callas' life, from birth in 1923 to death in 1977, via her successes, her marriage with Meneghini and affair with Onassis. Mostly we listen to people talk, giving their recollections of the singer's character. Her secretary recounting an unselfconsciousness at odds with other parts of the portrait.

We are told that the star thought of herself as the woman Maria, and of the soprano, Callas, almost in the third person, as someone else she became on stage. We surmise that Callas was an image as much as any glamorous movie star. There is a rather psychologically tabloid attempt to define the real woman in-terms of operatic Greek tragedy: Maria could not find love and fulfilment, sacrificed to the career of Callas. The film would turn life into art, because it is neater, more comprehensible, more artistic. But it is too simplistic. We see Callas interviewed, but it is always a public persona. She eludes us, and Tony Palmer, so he does the best he can to form a narrative were really there is none. The film and opera director Franco Zeferelli is most direct and honest, when he says that perhaps her friends, in which he includes himself, should have done more to support her. We see Callas on stage, though most of the shots come from the same performance. Most of the interest comes from seeing what the people we read about look and sound like, putting faces to names. For deeper insight we must read one of the more than 30 books the film mentions as having been written about Maria Callas (and that was in 1987, there must be many more now).

Comprised as the film is of newly shot television interviews and old film and TV archive footage from documentaries and newsreels, picture quality is not really a primary concern. Nor is the sound, given that we do not get to hear whole numbers. The picture is certainly considerably cleaner and more detailed than VHS, and the sound is perfectly adequate, but there is little real incentive to chose the DVD over the video version. You can listen to a German voice over, or select subtitles for the opera extracts, but there are no bonus features. The packaging is first rate, but some background material could surely have been assembled, a selection of complete arias to compliment the extracts featured within the body of the film, or an interview with Tony Thomas about his approach to his subject. Even a discography of Callas and a list of recommended recordings. In short, some imagination could have been used. As it is, the film itself is interesting though hardly compelling or essential viewing. As a package the DVD does not have the substance to warrant repeated viewing.

Gary S. Dalkin

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