Interlude--Staging the Operas
One of the most basic differences between stage and film is that film offers a broader canvas. Many characters in the film are but referred to in the stage play: Stanzis mother, Schikaneder, even Mozarts father Leopold. But theres an additional cast member as wellthe city of Vienna, in all its 17th century splendor and squalor. The presence of the city provides a vibrant backdrop for the action. The citys presence is even felt on the movie poster. The play poster simply has a black and white graphic of the menacing father/Commendatore. The movie poster has the same graphic, but the figure towers over the city.
We get to see the palace of the archbishop, the royal gardens of the emperor. And, of course, we get to see the operas. One of the foundation blocks of the film is the operas, with Neville Marriners conducting, Patrezia von Brandenstein's set design, and Twyla Tharps lavish choreography. Film allows us to cut from the audience perspective of the opera, to a close-up of Salieri or Mozart conducting, to a close-up of the actors on stage, to a shot of audience members reacting to the work. The result is an overwhelming sense of grandeurin particular, the sequence of Salieri watching Don GiovanniSalieri being slowly consumed with envy and being driven to the brink of madnessis a stunning achievement, culminating in the dreadful line"I finally saw a waya terrible wayto triumph over God." Up until this point in the film I was just interested; from this moment on, I was riveted.
The locations do give the movie a depth of field that is most difficult to achieve on stage without resorting to the massive extravagance of Les Miserable. The playas originally stagedtakes a fairly minimalist approach: In stead of seeing the play, or even the entire audience, we just see a theatre box, with key audience membersthe emperor, or Salieri, etclooking out into the real audience, "watching" the opera as the music is heard in the background. A various points the rest of the actors freeze, allowing Salieri to step out of the past and comment on the action. The device is similar to the voice-overs and cuts back to the asylum used in the film; the play relies on these comments much more heavily. [A variation on this technique is employed in the current Lifetime series Oh, Baby! Cynthia Stevenson uses a VCR to show what happened in her life during her pregnancy. Every now and then she freezes the tape to comment on the action.]
One additional staging device for the operas is the stage backdrop. The actors are looking forward to"watch" the opera, but behind them on a back drop is projected a simple image that characterizes the play. For Don Giovanni, that image is, of course, the posters image of the Commendatore. The backdrop gives the audience a visual reference for Salieris comments about how Mozart is using the opera to accuse himself.
The staging of The Magic Flute brings Mozarts own problems full circle. In the movie poster, and in the film itself, the major image of the work is the fairy queen and the singing birds. In the play, though, that image is of one of the high priests, in a pose similar to that of the Commendatore. However, whereas the Commendatore had a most menacing aura about him, the high priest is a much more benevolent figure, his arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome and benediction. The change is note lost on Salieri, who realizes that Mozart has resolved his feelings of guilt over his father, and has come to terms with those feelings. Consequently, the brooding image is transformed. Mozart has used his own music to defeat his inner demons. It is yet further proof to Salieri that God favors Mozart over him. Salieris demons are clearly as savage as Mozarts if not more so; however, God has denied Salieri the ability to heal himself. The sequence makes the parallel between the two characters more pointed, thus making the subsequent action more tragic. It would have been a very simple matter to incorporate the sequence into the film; its omission is really the only misstep in the latter half of the film.