Film Review: Maria by Callas

The definitive portrait of the definitive diva is achieved through a meticulously assembled collage of her own words and images. A must for opera fans and anyone interested in great singing.
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The real takeaway of Maria by Callas, Tom Volf‘s luminously adoring documentary about one whom many consider the greatest of all opera singers, is just how beautiful she was. Not just her voice, especially in its youthful, ravishing prime, but her face and figure which, with their aquiline hauteur, possessed a statuesque dignity and depthless allure all the more rare in this lower, Karsdashianed age we live in.
 
Comprised entirely of the diva’s own words, whether filmed or transcribed from her various writings, letters and reminiscences, the film offers the definitive portrait of a woman who rose from obscurity in her native Queens, NY, born Greek, to become a true citizen of the world and queen of an art form. Through her gifts of musicality and dramatic instinct, she virtually reshaped the entire art of opera, while single-handedly reviving bel canto, a 19th century music tradition of vocal loveliness and pyrotechnics that had fallen out of fashion. 
 
After Callas, the old “park and bark” school of opera performing, where hitting the right notes powerfully took precedence over any discerning interpretation of a role, was pretty much finished forever.  Her dynamic singing married to her intense acting added mesmerizing psychological layers to the art form as well as breathtaking histrionic depth. 
 
One of the great joys of this film is the generous footage, mercifully uncut and complete, of Callas exquisitely gowned and  performing some of the most famous operatic arias, all of which she made her own: Bellini’s stirring “Ah! Non credea mirarti” and “Casta diva,” Bizet’s seductive habanera from Carmen and Puccini standards like “O mio babbino caro” and Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte,” many of them seen for the first time in sumptuous color. More than any fan gushing or critic’s rave, these, convey an exact idea of the performer’s particular genius and why it was she was so fanatically worshipped by so many, like the hordes who camped out in the bitter old overnight for tickets to a New York engagement. 
 
That adulation had its rewards and drawbacks. It’s almost hard to imagine a time when, say, Callas’ cancellation of an appearance due to ill health could shove international news of weightier matters of war and peace from the headlines. This, she accepted as part of the price of fame. The most entertaining passages here are her encounters with the avid, ever-intrusive press at various stages of her life, alternately gracious and exceedingly eloquent or driven to a near murderous point of exasperation (“Don’t push me!”). 
 
An even greater price was  the sacrifice of her own private life for her art, whether it was the loss of a proper childhood, driven as she was by her ambitious mother, or a chance for a real marriage and family of her own. Callas was first married to Giovanni Meneghini, who mentored her and then prevailed upon her relentlessly to perform. His perceived mismanagement of her career helped precipitate their divorce. She did manage to have one true love in the form of Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who matched her for compelling charisma and forceful character. But she was eventually relegated to a kind of back street position in his life, contending first with her predecessor, his legal wife and mother of his children, and then with her notorious successor Jacqueline Kennedy, who marriage to Onassis devastated her. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato provides the voice of Callas’ letters, giving a particularly moving spoken performance of this diva-in-crisis who, having forsaken her career for the liberating joys of life in the highest society on the arm of a powerful man, found herself cast adrift when he sought fresh connubial bliss elsewhere. 
 
The film respectfully soft-pedals Callas’ sad final years, which she spent as a heartbroken and dissolute recluse in her posh Paris apartment before dying of a heart attack at 53, by emphasizing her unquenchable desire for work—including Pasolini’s disappointingly inert movie Medea—as therapy. This tactful approach is welcome, Callas’ heartbreak and hopelessness evident enough in her own words without having to belabor it any further. However much of a mess her life became as a result of not enough self-reliance and too much emotional susceptibility, nothing can ever take away the glory of her voice and interpretation of some of the greatest music known to mankind.