by Elaine Perrone
Known to her legions of fans as "La Divina," Maria Callas's life offstage was in many ways far from divine. Born in 1923, in New York, to Greek parents who later divorced, 13-year-old Maria Kalogeropoulou moved to Athens with her overbearing mother, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. Throughout her legendary but relatively short career, Callas was renown for her tumultuous relationships with fellow performers and opera insiders, including Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolph Bing, with whom she famously feuded. Her love life was tempestuous, as well. First she fell deeply in love with director Luchino Visconti, a gay man, then later married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who was 20 years her senior and more of a father-figure and director of her career than a soulmate. Though still married, she carried on an affair for years with Aristotle Onassis, who despised her music but led her on with promises of marriage and wealth up until the time he publicly and unceremoniously dumped her for the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. By this time, Callas's spirit was broken and her voice completely shot from the abuse she had inflicted on it over the years. When her good friend Franco Zeffirelli proposed that she return to the limelight, recreating her glory in performances that she would lip-synch to her own earlier recordings, she refused. She died in Paris, alone, in 1977, at the age of 53.As co-written by Martin Sherman and Zeffirelli, who also directed, "Callas Forever" is a fictionalized recounting of what might have happened, had Maria accepted the proposal to return to the stage and perform one last time.
"Zeffirelli pays odd tribute to his 'Divine' friend."
In his imagination, Zeffirelli gives his beloved friend carte blanche, and she delivers beautifully, choosing for herself a performance of "Carmen," which she had sung on record but never acted.
In this rendition, the life-long friends who urge Callas back onstage are Larry (Jeremy Irons), a concert producer, and Sarah (Joan Plowright), a journalist. Here, though, as in life, the stage belongs entirely to Callas (a magnificent Fanny Ardant), who tears up the earth with her talent and bends the world to her will. Even in his imagination, though, Zefferilli seems to know that Callas's return to the spotlight would have been an interlude, as, through her eyes and heart, he comes to realize that there was a reason she never played "Carmen." As a transcendent Ardant portrays in a dream (sublimely dreamy!) sequence, Callas's soul belongs to "Tosca," the role that began her career and the only one she would have considered ending it with, in her own voice.
Listening to that glorious voice singing "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" (I live for art, I live for love), my heart broke for the life of a brilliant artist whose life ended so tragically.
Sadly, though, apart from Ardant's lovely turn as the reimagined Callas, the rest of the film has a sloppy feel, and the considerable talents of Jeremy Irons and Joan Plowright are shamefully squandered in the poorly drawn characters of Larry and Sarah.
The movie opens jarringly, with a blast of punk rock, as Larry arrives in Paris to promote a concert for "Bad Dreams," a band he represents. Sarah, a reviewer of the classical arts, is inexplicably assigned to report on the band, whose name she mangles as "Wet Dreams." While I can buy that Irons' character could be a producer of both classical and rock concerts, it seems highly unlikely that a critic of classical music would be assigned to cover a punk event. The movie also features an extraneous, and intrusive, subplot in which Irons' Larry, a gay man, becomes involved with a much younger man, an artist who happens to be hard of hearing.At the end of the day: Go to feast your eyes on Ardant and Paris, and let the glorious voice of Maria Callas wash over you. Then, forget about the movie, go out and buy the soundtrack, and revel in the music of Callas, forever.
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originally posted: 11/24/04 15:19:04