Missing the high notes

The ghost of opera's most infamous diva doesn't haunt 'Callas Forever'

Stunning French actress Fanny Ardant gives dramatic voice to the woman who brought the word "diva" to life, opera star Maria Callas, in Callas Forever.

Forget Garland, Streisand, Midler, and Madonna. The definitive diva is Maria Callas, the imperious, temperamental, and inimitable soprano who is as legendary as the operatic characters she portrayed. In Callas Forever, film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli, who knew and worked with her, imagines Callas in 1977, during the final year of her life. Aware that her precious voice can no longer perform to the exalted standard she demands, 53-year-old Callas has retreated from public view to a stately, stuffy apartment on the Right Bank of Paris. Slowly, Larry Kelly (Irons), her sometime manager and confidant, penetrates her seclusion and coaxes her into one last project. Times, and fortunes, have also changed for Kelly, a distinguished impresario who once worked with Yehudi Menuhin and Rudolf Nureyev but is now reduced to managing a punk-rock band called Bad Dreams.

Early in the film, Kelly follows an attractive young painter to his apartment. Michael (Jay Rodanco Zeffirelli) has no idea of Kelly's connection to Callas and he is too young to have seen her perform. But he immediately plays a Callas record. "You're not one of the ghastly Callas queens, are you?" asks Kelly. I do not claim to understand how Callas has become the object of veneration among certain gay men, but this film should appeal to members of that cult. It reinforces the myth of Callas as sacred monster, even as it undercuts it. Fanny Ardant does a splendid job of impersonating Callas and of lip-synching to her singing, but she remains a regal, distant figure, reluctant to dispel the illusion of glamorous dominatrix who holds ardent men in thrall.

For all its conceptual ambitions, the plot of Callas Forever is simple. Kelly overcomes Callas' considerable anxiety to get her to agree to a series of films called Callas Forever. Technology was making it possible to take recordings of Callas in her prime and splice them into the sound track of a new performance, so that the 53-year-old woman would be seen on screen singing with her 33-year-old voice. The plan is to begin with a production of Carmen and then move on to La Traviata, Norma, and Tosca. Despite her relatively advanced age, the new video market in 1977 seems ripe for selling individual copies of Callas in her finest performances.

Callas Forever

Dir. Franco Zeffirelli; writ. Zeffirelli, Martin Sherman; feat. Fanny Ardant, Jeremy Irons, Joan Plowright, Jay Rodanco Zeffirelli, Gabriel Garko (NR)
Zeffirelli's film offers vibrant, fully staged scenes from Carmen: Ardant playing Callas playing herself playing Bizet's famous femme fatale. Between scenes, Kelly struggles to keep Callas, ambivalent about the whole business of a comeback, on track. She is still mourning the death of Aristotle Onassis and his betrayal when he dumped her for Jacqueline Kennedy, and she wavers between gregarious zest and reclusive depression. Callas insists to Kelly that contriving a Carmen film out of old recordings and new footage is a fraud. "You want my legacy to be the opposite of everything I ever stood for," Callas complains. A viewer, impatient to see more of the technologically contrived Carmen, is inclined to agree with Sarah Keller (Plowright), a saucy old journalist, when she notes that: "All art is a fraud."

Opera never pretends to be anything other than a performance, and Ardant's performance as the sulky soprano grows annoying. "It's like the last act of one of her damned operas," says Keller of aging Callas' off-stage theatrics. In most of those damned operas, the diva dies, but at least we get to hear majestic music.

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