Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant) was the most famous female opera singer that ever lived. But, when her voice began to fail the chanteuse became a recluse in her luxurious Parisian apartment, wallowing in self-pity over her past, lost glory. Things take a turn for the better when her old friend, Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), comes up with a plan to bring the diva back to the stage, at least for a while, in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Callas Forever.”
Between a striking performance by Fanny Ardant and the magnificent music that she brought to life, I was bowled over by the emotional impact of “Callas Forever.” The movie is a biopic of opera’s most famous lady and Ms. Ardant does a marvelous job in depicting Callas near the end of her life. In one scene, in particular, we see Maria going through her nightly ritual of listening to her old recordings in a rapture that soon turns to tears of sorrow and regret. Ardant brings to realistic life Callas’s suffering over her lost vocal magnificence in such a palpable way that she brought tears of sympathy to my eyes.
Franco Zeffirelli spawned the idea of creating a fictional account of the waning life of the world’s most famous opera diva. Scenarist Martin Sherman turned the idea into a screenplay that gives us a look into the last days of Callas through her eyes and those of Larry Kelly, a fictional character, a gay music-biz impresario and longtime friend of the singer. Larry goes to Maria’s home while on a business trip to Paris and barges in on her, uninvited. She chastises him but you can see that there is a deeply felt bond between them.
But, Callas is near outraged when Kelly proposes that she return to the screen and recreate her most famous operas. She considers the idea absurd and insulting since she does not have the voice anymore. Larry’s plan is to have her, on a grand and lavish scale, perform an opera with the entire spectacle the big screen offers – and lip-sync the diva’s voice with her magnificent original recording. Intrigued, now, but still skeptical, she lets Larry woo her with the promise of high tech perfection in the dubbing process and all the trappings of a star. They agree to do the one opera Callas did not perform on stage, though she had recorded the piece. It is Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Once the die is cast, Zeffirelli shifts gears and we are shown the life of the opera diva in her element. Callas can be irritable, nasty and demanding of others, but no less demanding than she is of herself. Larry’s plan is to create a series of operatic films that will showcase Callas in the flesh but with her voice at its very best. Maria, we learn, is more of a pragmatist than her good friend and has different plans.
There is little going on, character-wise, below the two stars. Fanny Ardant gives a strong performance that smacked, early on, of “Sunset Boulevard” and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, but the actress overcomes this cliché. Even the uninitiated will get a little social history lesson as we learn of Maria’s torrid romance with Aristotle Onassis, only to be dumped and ruined by the billionaire when we married Jackie Kennedy. Sure, Maria Callas may have been the prima prima Dona, but she was also a complex, hard working and passionate person who was blessed with one of the world’s most gifted throats. Her suffering and joys were really larger than life and Ardant brings this out in her performance.
Jeremy Irons, in his symbolic role in this fictional what-might-have-been movie, is suave and caring. His Larry Kelly is openly gay and a fine producer who wants to see his friend, Maria, living life again. It is a good premise for the fictional account and Iron’s fits the role well. Joan Plowright appears intermittently as music journalist Sarah Keller, adding a bit of comic relief but not a 3D character. The love interests for Callas, a handsome straight tenor (Gabriel Garko), and Irons, a handsome gay artist (Jay Rodan), are nondescript eye candy with little to do.
The production design, particularly Carlos Centalavigna’s artistically rendered “Carmen,” is as one would expect in a Franco Zeffirelli film. Costume, too, should be noted, especially the Coco Chanel-inspired wardrobe for Ms. Ardant by Karl Lagerfeld. Besides the moving performance by Fanny Ardant, for opera fans there are some of the greatest musical performances, ever, by one of the greatest singers ever. Besides Bizet’s “Carmen;” there is Puccinni’s Tosca,” “Manon Lescaut,” “Madame Butterfly” and “Il Trittico – Gianni Schicchi;” Bellini’s “Norma;” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.” And, for a bit of contrast, over the opening credits we get Joe Strummer’s Complete Control.” It is an audio smorgasbord for those who like opera, even just a little.
Callas Forever” creates a fictional vision of the final months of a great talent. Zeffirelli does not try to change history; he just gives his imagined version of it. And, he does it with care and devotion to Maria Callas. I give it a B.
Laura gives "Callas Forever" a B-.
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