19 Oct 2012

To Rome With Love: A Woody Allen film

What might a Woody Allen treatment involving opera read like? Tosca, third act — the firing squad lets loose shrapnel from a malfunctioning prop carbine, verily cutting into the Cavaradossi.

Cut to a hospital somewhere in Italy — an anxiety-ridden voice is heard recounting, to anyone within earshot, of how he’d dreamt about this happening, that the shirt he wore for this performance — a present from his mother-in-law — was now ruined, and that the soprano probably put her boy toy supernumerary up to taking him out. And finally, “Is the doctor Jewish, you know cause, cause…I’d prefer if he were kosher since, since I had a club sandwich today and, and, that’ll kind of balance things out.”

Some of you might recognize part of the above as non-fiction. In1995, tenor Fabio Armiliato went through the ordeal of hospitalization and recovery after this exact unfortunate improvisation became part of a production of Tosca. The rest of this, to the best of my knowledge, is fiction, dialogue invented by me as an ode to the painfully self-examining and incessantly loquacious director’s filmmaking style. There need no longer be a wondering of how Allen might handle the subject of opera in film.

Checking out reviews of To Rome With Love (in theaters as of June 22), two stood out for their specific contrasts. One was a rave, from a publication not solely specializing in classical music, but from an opera newsy. The less complimenting piece centered on Allen’s relationship to the arts and how that influenced the construct of the film. The rave set aside particular positive attention for an opera singer by the name Armiliato. To Rome With Love, then, is a convergence of Allen and opera, as it is a convergence of Allen and Armiliato and their two characters.

Fabio is one of two Armiliatos to leave an imprint in opera today. Marco is a conductor that has had great success leading major orchestras at major theaters, through major opera assignments the world over. Fabio’s career has progressed so that he has become one of the premiere exponents of the dramatic repertory. Aside from a Tosca experience (and a Carmen one involving a sword and an Armiliato extremity) that would be difficult to make up, there is little indication why he would appear in Allen’s film. It turns out that Armiliato is a natural in Allen’s nearly probable satirical environment; I appear to have enjoyed Armiliato more than the reviewer that appraised his presence “charming.”

F. Armiliato singing at ‘red-carpet’ event promoting To Rome With Love

Genoese Armiliato plays Giancarlo, the owner of a funerary home shoppe in a strip mall. He is what you’d expect from a caricature of this persona and as the film gets underway, Armiliato gets lost in it. He is sullen and dry and flat, that is until he cleanses off embalming fluid and rigor mortis at the end of the work day and produces those big, operatically-trained sounds of Armiliato’s in the shower.

Setting the character’s temperament aside, Armiliato is warm and appears comfortable on camera. He also has a way with playing the ridiculous smoothly, and with having humor and irony fade into one another. If Allen has a gift for writing in absurdities that are nevertheless easy for actors to identify with, opera singer Armiliato seemed to easily find that place in the “filmy” climate. In opera, Armiliato’s reception steers sharply in the direction of physique (“tall, dark and handsome”), presence (“animal-like magnetism”) and greater still towards his voice — style and taste. Of his dramatics on stage, the general consensus is, well, quiet. This is a good thing in opera. It worked to an advantage in To Rome With Love.

There is nothing left to be desired from this soundtrack (per Armiliato) stacked up against the best recorded material of Del Monaco. The miking and its exposure tells us more about what Armiliato does vocally. It is a hearty, if a bit thick, and well-supported sound that rises fully through the range. It is singing that sets itself apart in knowing the music and for a strong sense of the style (mostly versimo). On the opera stage, Armiliato’s tone sounds like it falls short of the pitch in the very lower parts of the range but the middle and high range singing, squillante e potente, is from a voice opera-special and movie-star handsome.

This absolutely startles (even if your expecting it) and begins Allen’s character’s mind to churn when he visits his daughter (played by Alison Pill) and her boyfriend (played Flavio Parenti) — son of mortician. Allen’s character (Jerry) is a bit change of pace for him. He still has lots to say, and says it with the tense and torn interlocution that we’ve come to expect. But the direction of the message is “out of character.”

As a more careful than wise elder-statesman (a funny turn in it’s own right), he is less believable pinning the label of communist revolutionary on his daughter’s beau. As a cutting-edge opera-director, the kind that seeks to reinvent, update and upset all things traditional in opera, he is at least theoretically more in his element. The story doesn’t play like it’s about him anyway, or even like the ideas are bounced off him as happens in Allen’s early works.

The convergence of opera and Allen in film is poetic for the director, a convergence of fortune and the fantastic: an extraordinary talent (Ginacarlo’s) that only surfaces in the shower and a director (Jerry), in an outside-imposed professional asylum, that has no qualms about fitting this into the plot twist of Pagliacci in a major opera house. But before anyone is aware of the limitations of this talent, Jerry seeks the advice of others. The first to object is Michelangelo (Giancarlo’s son), with loud warnings of his father becoming a product, a cog and bourgeois puppet. His son sees him as fine as he is.

Giancarlo strongly agrees at first. And before you know it, the film turns to an audition, with presumably opera-elites in jury. Here we get to probably the funniest moment with regards to singing in the film. “Nessun Dorma” is already going badly, hacked up, strained high notes, no signs of the enormously gifted voice heard coming from the shower of the Giancarlo home. Then, the final note arrives. In mid-scream, Armiliato contorts his face to match, sticking-out his tongue in, possibly, a last ditch effort to loosen his voice. Or, possibly, Armiliato is sticking it out at us, the audience.

Allen’s To Rome With Love goes only so much farther into opera than many a film, and other parts of the ensemble set pieces that are the director’s forte also play to the world of opera, to love, infatuation, and the fickle nature and folly of fame.

Judy Davis (Phyllis) is again an Allen wife, less frustrated by the predicaments he has for her this time around. Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo) is a nobody who has celebrity suddenly thrust on him for no apparent reason. A young man (played by Alessandro Tiberi) loses his girlfriend (played by Alessandra Mastronardi) but gains Penelope Cruz (Anna), a lady-of-the-night that knocks on the wrong hotel door (“sono tutta tua,” she says to him, things have been paid for). This leads to some of the best comedic moments of the film. Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page (young Jack, Sally, and Monica) help Alec Baldwin (older Jack) relive an after-college year in Italy, with Baldwin meeting that younger Jack struggling to make sense of the world.

To open and close the film, this world is directed by a polizia (Pierluigi Marchionne). From the pedestal of a traffic circle in “every street” Rome, this character muses to the audience of the events and world that pass around, this world where Allen, opera, and Armiliato, meet.

Robert Carreras

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