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Marcello Mastroianni inconveniently operatic

November 6, 2008 |  2:52 pm

Marcello Mastroianni Howard Shore’s “The Fly” at Los Angeles Opera is not the only new opera based on a film. Bypassing most operatic radar detectors was Giorgio Battistelli’s “Divorce a l’Italienne,”  based on the wry 1961 Italian comedy, “Divorce Italian Style” staring Marcello Mastroianni.  The work was commissioned by Opera National de Lorraine in Nancy, France, and broadcast on Radio France over the weekend.

Battistelli’s music is practically unknown in the U.S., which may be why he became the subject of ridicule in the American press last June when the famed La Scala in Milan announced that it had commissioned the Italian composer to create an opera based on “An Inconvenient Truth” for 2011.  A New York Times science writer responded with a silly parody.

They know better on the continent, where Battistelli is a prolific and major composer. “Divorce,” which I caught streamed over the Internet, is the third of his triptych of Italian film operas. A CD of the second in the series -- “Prova d'Orchestra,” after Fellini’s “Orchestra Rehearsal” -– was released on the Italian Stradivarius label earlier this year and is just now showing up on our shore. (Pasolini's “Teorema” was the first).

Battistelli takes liberties, especially with “Divorce,” a pitch-perfect comedy that Martin Scorsese has said  had a profound influence on his own work. Pietro Germi’s film revolves around the laconic Fefe (Mastroianni) who schemes to rid himself of his mustachioed wife so he can take up with his sumptuous 16-year-old cousin, Angela. In Battistelli’s opera, all the women but Angela are sung by men. The vocal style is full of flamboyant utterances. The orchestra is a riot of color.

“Prova” is more conventionally avant-garde but hardly conventional.  Here, Fellini’s radical television film about a dysfunctional orchestra becomes all the more hilariously subversive when the parts are taken over by singers and a real orchestra. 

Artistic director of the Arena Foundation of Verona as well as the Venice Biennale’s new music component, Battistelli is also composer-in-residence with the Nancy company and at Dusseldorf Opera in Germany, for whom he created an operatic farce about fashion in February.

The inconvenient truth about “An Inconvenient Truth” is that the opera may not be any more of a joke than its subject.
-- Mark Swed

Marcello Mastroianni is a nobleman desperate to rid himself of his wife in Pietro Germi's Oscar-winning satire "Divorce Italian Style."  Photographer unknown.