(English and Italian soundtrack)
Numerous docus have tried to peek behind the curtain protecting legendary opera divas – yet even in retirement, these subjects are often loath to let their (occasionally infamous) “temperament” be captured by the camera. This has resulted in some seriously dull, starched “tributes” suitable only for PBS pledge-drive weeks. Jan Schmidt-Garre’s new “Opera Fanatic” is another animal entirely – dishy, impudent, fond, quite funny. Though theatrical export prospects are limited, pic is a sure bet for cult status amongst offscreen opera fanatics via upscale tube play and cassette release.
This “opera road movie” provides an excuse for Stefan Zucker, an eccentric New York buff considered “the world’s highest tenor” (according to the Guinness Book of Records) to trundle around Italy hunting down retired divas. Not all of them are grateful for the attention. Zucker, however, is invariably enthralled – as he informs the crew after each interview, his speaking voice sounding quite like Mickey Mouse with a cold.
These women – all Italian, save Turkish-born Leyla Gencer – shone brightly in what Zucker considers the more glamorous operatic era of his childhood. Without naming names, they each echo his complaints by suggesting that young singers today sacrifice passion, flamboyance and all-important dramatic expression for the sake of cold technical virtuosity.
As seen in B&W TV performance clips, histrionic abandon was seldom lacking in their ’50s/early ’60s heyday. Nor is it absent now, as Zucker finds out. Formidable Marcella Pobbe is annoyed by his every question, especially those not specifically about her. She complains to the filmmakers, he whines to them as well, she storms off. Magda Olivero delivers a hair-raising spoken recitation of a passage from “Adriana Lecouvreur.” Giulietta Simionato still rails about the “enemies” who once held her career back. The elegant, gracious Anita Cerquetti is mortified by her daughter, who dresses (and acts) like trailer trash; Zucker, of course, perceives “real star quality” in the junior singer’s leopard-skin-leotarded brazenness.
Some divas confess they no longer miss the fickle spotlight. Others, like 96 -year-old Gina Cigna, still regret being forced into retirement by illness or family crises. They’re each lively, if sometimes cantankerous, company.
Feature does grow a tad repetitious as it intercuts between archival segments (which have been restored to impressive audio quality), interviews in sometimes cramped apartments and Zucker’s gossipy asides. An hourlong version would be apt for broadcast slots. Tech aspects are polished; color lensing captures the timeless look of Italian cityscapes from Rome to Parma.