Monday, December 8, 2014

Thoughts on Camille and La Traviata

The Lady of the Camellias

     Very recently I watched the 1936 film Camille for the first time. It surprises me that I had not seen the entire film before, because I love the story and was very much aware of the Dumas novel being the basis for both Verdi’s beautiful opera La Traviata and this movie. I’ve seen and heard the opera many times and never tire of it. There are musical moments in this opera, as in many of Verdi’s operas, which are so achingly beautiful and so moving it’s impossible not to respond to them exactly as Verdi intended we should. 
     I have to admit, though, I’ve never read the novel, and I’m surprised that I have not. There were moments in the film in which the dialogue is nearly word for word the same as those scenes in the opera; in particular, the scene between Marguerite/Violetta and Armand's/Alfredo's father. I have to correct that; I need to read the novel, but I wish I could read it in French. I’m still not sure I understand why the film was entitled Camille and not The Lady of the Camellias, English for the book title La Dame aux Camélias.
     In the novel, Marguerite Gautier is a Parisian courtesan who lives by being “kept” by men of wealth (I won’t call them “gentlemen”). A woman of great beauty, she came to Paris from the country and grew to love the life of luxury these men afforded her. She’s battling consumption, though, and is doomed to die young. But before she does, she meets the great love of her life, Armand Duval, a younger man who has been hopelessly smitten with her. They have a summer together. She eventually dies in his arms.
     Since I knew the opera better than the film … or the novel … one of the things I appreciated about the movie was learning more about the characters. While the music paints the emotions of the characters as words alone cannot, there are some things about them we don’t learn in the opera. Marguerite is happy in the country because she came from the country, and she appreciates such things as the care of livestock. Verdi’s Violetta doesn’t show or tell us that about herself. However, she has an aria (“Sempre libera”) about her determined pursuit of living for herself that ignites the stage more than any dialogue or monologue ever could.
     Greta Garbo struck me as not just beautiful, but luminous. Radiant. I know it’s an old film, but I thought it was the most romantic movie I have ever seen, primarily because of Garbo’s Marguerite. What a remarkable actress the woman was. A lesson in what an actor needs to do to create and express a character – voice, face, body. It made me curious about how many sopranos who perform the role of Violetta study Garbo’s Marguerite. They should.
     The primary reason I wanted to watch the film was because the protagonist of my book You Are My Song, tenor Jamie Logan, sings the role of Alfredo – Verdi’s version of Armand. I had my own ideas about how Alfredo (or Armand) should be portrayed, and was enchanted with what Robert Taylor did with the role. I believe Armand was Taylor’s first major film role, and I’m sure it was daunting for the young actor to be performing in a film with the divine Garbo, but I found him wonderfully convincing in the role. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be.
     (An aside: Robert Taylor, whose real name was Spangler Arlington Brugh, began life as a musician. He was a serious cello student and followed his teacher from Doane College in Nebraska to Pomona College in Los Angeles. While a student there he became part of a theater group, where he was spotted by a talent scout. Those things do happen sometimes!)
     So here is a brief moment in You Are My Song (to be released January, 2015) concerning Jamie’s first appearance as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata.

     Meredith attended the final dress rehearsal and loved what she saw. Marco’s staging called for an instant attraction between Violetta and Alfredo, and they were in each other’s arms almost from the moment the two of them were alone on stage. Meredith thought Jamie’s Alfredo was just about perfect; he played the role as a very eager, very young man, almost a boy. Arlene’s Violetta was at first seductive and sophisticated, then became a woman truly in love, entranced by Alfredo.
     Meredith thought of the old film Camille with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, which is based on the same story. She had thought the film the height of romanticism when she saw it. Marco was producing the same effect with two fine singing actors who had the voices, the looks, and the chemistry between them to make it work well.
     After the rehearsal Meredith said to Jamie and Arlene, “It’s wonderful. Just steamy enough. Who says opera is stuffy? You are both absolutely fantastic.”