a billet-doux to our beloved American-Greek soprano
Any documentary exerts a stratagem that totally constructs its content through its subject's perspective, tends to earn its cachet by a semblance of authenticity, Tom Volf's MARIA BY CALLAS is no exception.
Gleaning and garnering an exhaustive amount of footages of TV interviews, operatic performances, various photos and videos, most of which has never been revealed in public, MARIA BY CALLAS is a billet-doux to our beloved American-Greek soprano, chronologically cruises through her career in glob-trotting venues with her beaming smile often betraying an intrinsic diffidence and feminine sensitivity, and builds the narrative almost exclusively through her own words (TV interview, family videos and private letters, narrated by Joyce DiDonato), except for one short snippet of interview from her teacher Elvira de Hidalgo, who seems to become her only friend when her career and personal live heading to an ineluctable downturn.
For our aural pleasure, Volf cherry-picks the crème-de-la-crème of her vast repertoire: Puccini's MADAME BUTTERFLY and TOSCA, Bellini's NORMA and SONNAMBULA, Verdi's LA TRAVIATA and MACBETH, to accord audience a testimonial of her unimpeachably superlative artistry, particularly in evidence during a rendition of CARMEN's L'AMOUR EST UN OISEAU REBELLE, what makes her name of "La Divina" is not just her tonal perfection and vocal potency, but also a thoroughgoing immersion into her songs and her characters, which makes the whole difference, and in her own words, if played badly, an opera can be very boring. It is obvious Volf eschews any inferior tuneage to mar her repute, there is no showing of her declining voice in her later comeback, which overlays the whole project a tinge of hagiography.
The cynosure of Callas' private lives is of course, her affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis (for whom she divorced from her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini of ten years), and the hammer blow of the latter's unheralded marriage with Jacqueline Kennedy, rendered with a masterstroke by superimposing Callas' honest and affectionate words laying bare her feelings to Onassis over the imagery of him with his new wife. Only through private letters to her dearest Elvira, we glance the sequela of this seismic switcheroo, as intelligent and talented as Callas herself, she is just another woman victimized by a man's wantonness. Her submissive female nature can overcome any career ambition, but her singular gift is such a double-edged sword, it brings her international fame, wealth and fandom, but also consumes her inwardly, crossing the great divide only at the age of 53 in 1977, it is the downcast side of her story that casts an indelible sigh, even if, that is not entirely the filmmaker's priority.
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