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Visconti's 'Senso' offers much to savor for opera fans

April 20, 2011 | 12:31 pm


There are a number of good reasons to revisit "Senso," the sumptuous romantic drama from 1954, directed by Luchino Visconti. The first is the recent death of Farley Granger, the American actor who plays the lead role of the Austrian military officer Franz Mahler in the movie. The second is the new DVD release from the Criterion Collection, which features a restored version of the film plus many extras.

For opera fans, "Senso" is worth a revisit to fully savor the ways in which Visconti translated his love of opera to the screen. The Italian director -- who was a Marxist aristocrat from Milan -- had a lifelong passion for opera that seeped into many of his movies. The Criterion DVD  devotes special attention to this facet of Visconti's life in a documentary titled "Viva Verdi," which explores how "Senso," "The Leopard" and "Death in Venice" all were influenced by classical music.

"Senso" opens with a scene in La Fenice, the famed opera house in Venice. As the opening credits play out, we see a performance of Verdi's "Il Trovatore," culminating in the "Di quella Pira" aria at the end of Act 3. The scene establishes the movie's larger-than-life tone, florid emotions and theatrical artifice.

Set in 1866 during the period of Italian unification known as the Risorgimento, "Senso" follows the love affair between a Venetian countess (Alida Valli) and an Austrian officer (Farley) who is part of the occupying forces. By naming the officer "Mahler," Visconti acknowledged his own affinity for the German composer whose music he would later use extensively in "Death in Venice."

Among the fascinating anecdotes we learn from the DVD is that Visconti wanted Maria Callas to perform a role in "Senso," but the soprano was unable to appear due to a commitment in the U.S. Visconti also directed his first opera production in 1954, the same year that "Senso" was released.

Visconti would go on to direct numerous opera productions around Europe in between his film projects. "Senso" remains his most passionate union of cinema and opera -- an old-fashioned romance played at melodramatic fortissimo.


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-- David Ng

Photos: Alida Valli and Farley Granger in "Senso." Credit: Criterion Collection / Studio Canal and Cineteca di Dol