by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was only 40 minutes long, but it was a truly odd item I had recently downloaded: a 1930 film of excerpts from Verdi’s opera Otello (probably the first time any of this score was filmed with sound) produced by John Iragi for something called “Trans-Panamic Film Corp.” with Manuel Salazar as Otello and Lelane Rivera (at least that’s how she’s credited) as Desdemona. The credits on the surviving print are too washed out to decipher most of the names, though Charles P. Navea is credited as “technical director” and Harold L. Muller with “photography,” Marc S. Asch with sound recording and Luigi Raybaut with stage direction. What little I know about this movie comes from the material the person who posted it included, which is mostly a biography of the tenor Salazar.
He was born in Costa Rica in 1887 (ironically the same year Otello had its premiere), made his stage debut in a zarzuela (the operetta form popular in Spain and Latin America) called La Marcha de Cádiz at 15 in 1902, and went to Italy for training in 1907 on a scholarship funded by the Costa Rican government. In 1910 he returned to America and sang with independent touring companies — the Alfredo del Diestro company and then the Lombardi company, with which he made his U.S. debut in 1911 as Radamès in Aïda. He went back and forth between the U.S. and Italy throughout the early teens — he got to sing in a Leoncavallo opera called Gli Zingari (“The Gypsies”) under Leoncavallo’s baton in 1914 — but he eventually settled in the U.S. and became lead tenor for Fortunato Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company, a touring outfit (it’s indicative of how much residual popularity opera still had, especially among Italian-American immigrants, that touring companies could not only stay in business but make a profit and keep their singers fairly well compensated; in the late 1940’s what was left of the San Carlo Opera Company would help launch the career of Beverly Sills), until 1921.
That year the sudden death of Enrico Caruso at age 48 led Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, on a frantic search for new star tenors who could replace him. Giovanni Martinelli and Beniamino Gigli were the best-known of these and the ones who came closest to Caruso’s fame, but Salazar also got a Met contract and worked there for two years, singing opposite Rosa Ponselle, Claudia Muzio, Lucrezia Bori and the Met’s other “name” stars — until he got tired of the discipline Gatti-Casazza imposed on the Met and quit it to go barnstorming again with the Bracale Opera Company — which pretty much eliminated his chances of getting a recording contract once he could no longer be marketed with the magic words, “ … of the Metropolitan Opera Company.” Aside from this Otello, only two records of Salazar are known to exist — both test recordings unreleased during his lifetime — both of Puccini arias: “É lucevan le stelle” from Tosca and “Ch’ella mi creda” (a piece written for Caruso!) from Fanciulla del West. The soprano, Lelane Rivera, is even less known: she’s so obscure that the poster who put this up wasn’t able to find any reference to her at all, and concluded that the name was a pseudonym and she was hiding her identity for contractual reasons — though he didn’t hazard a guess as to who she really was, either.
Otello begins with quite a lot of shots of a beach, with crashing waves breaking across a shoreline, backed on the soundtrack by an extended all-instrumental version of the gripping storm music with which the opera begins — and though the surf footage is interesting it also leaves us dreading what anyone with a good working knowledge of early sound cinema knows is coming: a series of flatly photographed, minimally edited tableaux shot from static cameras locked in immobile soundproof booths. The film has survived in pretty atrocious shape — grainy and flickering, with an odd bit of leader left in during the middle of the Act I duet and an ineradicable ringing sound whenever the music is at normal volume and above that makes the movie as difficult to listen to as it is sometimes to watch. What’s more, Salazar and Rivera are both people “of size,” and they barely move on stage — when they do move, they circle around each other nervously, each acutely conscious of their own and the other’s bulk, looking less like two singing actors and more like two SUV drivers confronting each other in a parking lot. Their sheer bulk isn’t the problem; unlike Luciano Pavarotti (who was even larger than Salazar but who managed nonetheless to be credible as a dashing, Errol Flynn-esque hero in the Met’s 1983 telecast of Verdi’s Ernani), neither Salazar nor Rivera seems to have much stage presence or much of a clue about how to act with their bodies.
The most interesting aspect of this 1930 Otello (aside from the fact that it was made at all, and it still survives) is how dramatically differently opera was presented then from the way it is now: the singers mostly stand stock still (though Salazar and Rivera kiss on-camera twice at the end of the love duet — “Un bacio ancora,” indeed!) and convey emotion exclusively with their voices, not their physical actions. The film consists of three extended excerpts — the Act I love duet, the Act III confrontation between Otello and Desdemona and Otello’s subsequent aria “Dio, mi potevi, scagliar,” and a potted version of Act IV that begins with Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” (sung with her behind an object that looks like a church pulpit — in the original stage directions she’s described as praying at a “prie-dieu,” but I always assumed that was a miniature altar with a few small sculptures of saints, not something that looks like she’s about to preach a sermon in her bedroom) and cuts to Otello’s entrance, the murder, the discovery of it (a few miscellaneous other characters enter silently but none of them sing — the editing was carefully done to eliminate the need to hire a chorus or any other singers, including a baritone for Iago, whose contributions are definitely missed) and his suicide.
One striking thing about this movie is that these aren’t all the kinds of singers who’d be hired for these roles today: Salazar is a lyric tenor with a rather reedy voice — Melchior, Vickers or Domingo he is not — and Rivera is a dramatic soprano who seems to be holding down her own volume to keep from drowning him out. The orchestration seems also to have been tampered with due to the limitations of Trans-Panamic’s sound recording (does the trans-American studio name have anything to do with the central American origin of the male lead?); though there are audible string basses when Verdi called for them, the sound balance and frequency range seem more like those of an early-1920’s acoustical recording than what state-of-the-art equipment was capable of in 1930 on both records and film. This Otello actually gives a decent account of the score, such as it goes, and though the singers don’t have especially great voices they’re mostly musical — and when they’re not, as in the opening of “Dio, mi potevi, scagliar” (where Salazar only vaguely references Verdi’s indicated pitches and more speaks than sings the piece, much the way Feodor Chaliapin enacted Boris Godunov’s death from the stage at Covent Garden in his famous July 4, 1928 live recording), it’s clear they’re doing it for dramatic emphasis and power.
One other odd thing about this Otello movie is how violent it is: Otello not only kills Desdemona on screen (no polite averting of the cameras for this director!) but the scene cuts to a close-up of her head dangling off the bed and with what looks like blood trickling out of her mouth. Then at the end, Otello doesn’t just stab himself in the chest with his dagger the way most Ot(h)ellos, spoken or sung, have historically done; he slashes his own throat, which makes it even more unbelievable than usual that he survives long enough to do another minute or so of singing before he finally expires. One can’t imagine a major Hollywood studio filming the play this way in 1930! This little movie of a great opera is of no more than historical interest now, yet the all-out way in which it is sung and the quirkiness of the casting (at least by modern standards; now virtually any major production of Otello is mounted with a dramatic tenor and a lyric soprano, not the other way around as here), as well as the explicitness with which the murder and suicide are staged, give it a haunting appeal.