A documentary by Tom Volf. In English, French, and Italian, with English subtitles. Rated G
If you ever wondered where the term diva comes from—aside from the original Sanskrit—look no further. Whether you’re an opera neophyte or a well-Callased veteran, this profile of the original stage goddess is a mega travel trunk of riches.
In a companion to his spectacularly expensive coffee-table book, neophyte filmmaker Tom Volf weaves together swaths of the irreplaceable singer’s life and art through footage and stills from myriad sources, all shined to a lustrous digital sheen, with a palette emphasizing salmon, mustard, and jade.
There’s no looking back here; all narration is taken from the subject’s own letters and journals, mostly read by Joyce DiDonato, herself a top-drawer American mezzo-soprano. (There’s also a French version featuring Fanny Ardant.) Maria’s own dulcet tones are heard in numerous interviews and in riotous press conferences that rival those of the Beatles or JFK—and more about Jackie Kennedy later on, as Callas settles into a volatile duet on the world stage with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Longer interviews with David Frost and others provide a ruminative through line.
This largely diaristic approach pits her serene self-image, complete with shape-shifting accents—a cool New Yorker on American TV, a French or Italian aristocrat or earthy Greek peasant when talking to European press—against the reality of the woman as a mercurial handful. Most crucially, there are complete performances of her key arias, sung in “the only language I really know: music”, with a special emphasis on famous highlights from Norma and Tosca. Her authenticity there shines through every heart-wrenching note.
Intriguingly, almost all the performances are drawn from well-recorded concert recitals. Most of the full-costume operas glimpsed here are taken from amateur 8mm movies, with no sync sound. Volf yokes these to rough audio records of the same (or similar) performances, and it’s mind-boggling to consider the effort that went into piecing all these elements together. Some of the framing, especially of smaller, more degraded images, may seem gimmicky or extreme. But hey, what’s more artificial than opera?