Italian Neorealism and Opera: Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione and Bellissima

On first thought, opera and Italian Neorealism films may seem an unlikely partnership. Opera delays action, amplifies moments of the plot beyond real time, and places the emotions of those moments under a magnifying glass. Neorealistic films depict actions that occur, more or less, in real time. Yet in the encounter between the two, opera can serve as a musical subtext that pinpoints the implications of a situation at multiple levels.

One Italian Neorealism director in particular realized the potential in forging a relationship between the two genres, and brought his lifelong passion for opera to film—Luchino Visconti. Visconti’s mastery at intertwining opera and cinema proved especially effective in two of his Neorealistic films, Ossessione (Obsession) and Bellissima. In both films, opera reveals emotional and psychological depths within situations and the motivations behind actions. 

Luchino Visconti was born in Milan one hour before the curtain rose on a performance of Verdi’s La traviata at La Scala on November 2, 1906. This must have been fated: Visconti’s extraordinary career as a director included the staging of operas, most notably a 1955 La Scala production of La traviata starring Maria Callas. That production was indeed a momentous encounter of forces: Verdi’s operatic masterpiece showcased the voice and acting of the reigning diva of the time in the hands of an imaginative, sensitive, visionary, and hard-working director. Critics were divided. Some praised Visconti for bringing realism into opera, stripping it of its conventions, and making it believable. Others accused him of damaging the art of opera and turning it into the soundtrack of a film. At the core of it all, the key point of contention was none other than Neorealism. While some welcomed the breath of fresh air that Neorealistic aesthetics brought to the operatic art form, others feared and disdained this “reality check” in opera. It is not surprising that realism was an animating factor for a director credited with making the first Neorealistic masterpiece: Ossessione.

Based on James M. Cain’s 1934 crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione was released in 1943. From the beginning, opera makes its presence known. One minute and forty seconds into the film, after a truck stops at a gas station and Trattoria and the driver steps out yelling, we hear a few phrases from Verdi’s La traviata. The baritone aria sung by the father character in the opera, “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” (The sea and earth of Provence) rings out from the diner. Visconti creates an immediate connection between the Trattoria’s owner, Bragana (Juan da Landa), who is singing, and the moralizing father character in La traviata, Giorgio Germont. This aria is the father’s admonishment of his son for living with a former courtesan, and an attempt to restore the young man on the right path. Visconti’s musical choice is brilliant in all its implications. First, it associates Bragana with an older, patriarchal figure who becomes the nemesis of young, passionate love. Second, it alludes to Violetta, La traviata’s female character and her status as a former courtesan whose survival is dependent on the favors of rich, older men. Bragana’s young wife, Giovanna (Clara Calamai), tells her new lover, the drifter Gino (Massimo Girotti), how she managed to survive by accepting men’s dinner invitations, which obviously implied much more than culinary experiences. Giovanna is a Neorealistic Violetta who has chosen a passionless marriage to escape her past of poverty and prostitution. 

The architecture of the illicit passion at the core of Ossessione is masterfully illustrated by Visconti through opera, especially when Gino and Giovanna share a table at the amateur singing competition for which Bragana had been preparing the La traviata aria. The selection of operatic pieces sung by other contestants before Bragana takes the stage is in itself a mirror of this passion. The first aria is the “Habanera”from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, an aria of seduction and the fickleness of love: it acts as a subliminal warning to Bragana that his own Carmen—his wife, Giovanna—has practiced the art of seduction on someone else. The second piece is from another opera by Bizet, Les pêcheurs des perles (The Pearl Fishers) whose plot is about the betrayal of friendship for love. This is a second warning to Bragana to look closely at his “friendship” with Gino. Another Verdi aria follows—“È il sol dell’anima” (It is the soul’s sunshine)—from Rigoletto in which the womanizing Duke of Mantua seduces the innocent Gilda with declarations of love that disguise an unbridled lust. Then, at last, Bragana gets his turn and performs “Di Provenza il mar, il suol,” leaving Giovanna and Gino alone to talk. Here, it is illuminating to pay attention to the words of the aria as an additional commentary running underneath the lovers’ conversation. Around the dialogue and the images, opera weaves a deep-running web of instant associations. The libretto literally refers to an old father while the music suggests the guilt-induced responsibility and moral pressure against which the two lovers struggle. 

In Bellissima (1951) Visconti chooses Donizetti as the operatic composer who underscores the screenplay. Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) belongs to the bel canto (beautiful singing) style which requires smooth, long phrases on a relatively sparse accompaniment so that the voice is exposed in order to display its beauty and virtuosity. What an ingenious choice—an opera in which emphasis is placed on beauty of voice in a film that is about the display of beauty and talent, and the vulnerability that accompanies such a display. Bellissima begins with a selection from L’elisir d’amore preceding a radio announcement of Stella Films’ search for a beautiful Italian girl between the ages of six and eight. Visconti appeals to the opera and libretto to establish the exciting lure of possibility that will possess the main character, Maddalena Cecconi (Anna Magnani). Maddalena is like a female version of Nemorino—L’elisir d’amore’s naïve male protagonist who believes in the power of magic potions. She trusts in the dream of her daughter’s future as a child star. As she becomes the ultimate stage mother, she keeps drinking the Kool-Aid—the addictive elixir of potential fame and money—and invests everything to prepare the little Maria (Tina Apicella) for her display: a screen test at the famed film studio Cinecittà. 

In the opera, charlatan doctor Dulcamara sells wine, claiming it is a powerful elixir that can make everyone fall in love with the person who drinks it. The doctor’s very name is a hint; it means “bittersweet,” from the Latin dulcis (sweet) and amara (bitter). It also refers to the medicinal plant bittersweet nightshade used in folk medicine to cure head colds. Maddalena, as the plot progresses, acquires the ultimate “head cold:” a distorted view of reality when she accepts being conned into paying money to cultivate her daughter’s star potential. Hair dressers, dance instructors, and acting teachers are the many Dulcamaras that ride on the coat tails of the film industry, peddling the magic potion of future fame to desperate mothers. The most deceptive Dulcamara is Alberto Annovazzi (Walter Chiari) who sells empty promises, and takes Maddalena’s money only to buy a scooter for himself. While Maddalena ultimately realizes his deceit, she continues to hope and strive until the final revelatory moment when her daughter’s talentless display on camera becomes fodder for laughter and ridicule. 

Visconti’s use of opera in Bellissima is motivic; his focus is on themes. When we see the film director, Alessandro Blasetti (playing himself), enter the studio and make his way through the throngs of hopeful parents and little girls, the musical theme accompanying his entrance is that of the operatic Dulcamara’s entrance in the village. Blasetti is, after all, the main seller of the elixir of fame. The last musical phrases of the film are played by the orchestra without the voice, although they are the first verses of one of Nemorino’s arias in L’elisir d’amore: “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara, più la vedo e più mi piace” (How beautiful she is, how dear she is, the more I see her, the more I like her). This offers a subtle subtext to the image of little Maria sleeping. Visconti leaves it up to the viewers to draw their conclusions, especially if they are familiar with Donizetti’s opera. As the camera focuses on Maria’s face, the musical phrase is heard. The libretto words implied by the phrase transmit the message that the little girl is beautiful and dear just as she is, removed from the cruel, illusionary world of the film industry.

Opera is one of the most unrealistic performing art forms, yet its actual content focuses mainly on the most basic, real human emotions, psychological states, interactions, and relationships. Like Neorealistic films, operas are influenced by historical, social, and political contexts, which is why, throughout history, several have served as political or national symbols of resistance and unity. Protests against oppression and social injustice are common to both Neorealism and many operas. They can be triggered and galvanized by the plot through either detailed expression of emotions in opera or the camera’s attention to the movements, gestures, and words of a Neorealistic film character associated with an oppressive situation. 

Luchino Visconti understood the possibilities of connection between opera and film at a level beyond their immediate auditory and visual expression. He knew that opera would support and enhance the detailed camera work in the construction of plot and character. After all, at the root of both Italian Neorealism and opera lies a deep commitment to capturing and conveying humanness in its nature and diverse manifestations. By combining the most evocative operatic selections with the right timing, Visconti succeeded in officiating what would have seemed an impossible marriage. Despite their different approaches to time, the partnership of operatic and cinematic realism plays with time, through timing, to honor the present of each moment onscreen in its complex and revelatory aura of meanings.

Available on Amazon: stream or buy Ossessione and Bellissima along with the operas that served their plots: La traviata and L’elisir d’amore

Top photo: Bigstock

About Maria-Cristina Necula (39 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives" (performed at Canterbury Christ Church University, U.K.), three poetry collections, and numerous articles and interviews in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." A classically-trained singer, she has performed in the New York City area at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and released four albums, among which two are of her own songs. Maria-Cristina has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, UCLA Southland, the White Plains Library. Fluent in six languages, she honed her language skills at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and obtained her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Besides music and writing, she enjoys traveling, reading, playing tennis, skiing, and spending time in nature.