Opera on film is like two continents colliding

Capturing an opera on film is a daunting task. Separately, both opera and cinema are complex and hybrid arts. Bringing them together is like watching two continents collide. The result may be a towering new mountain or a shattered archipelago.

The heart of the challenge is the fact that music and cinema each have rhythms of their own. Matching them, integrating sound and image so neither seems the slave of the other, is a delicate matter at best. Then too, sound has a relation to its source - a relation that's disrupted by such moviemaking practices as pre-recording and post-dubbing.

Yet some talented artists have brought off the feat, and at the moment, two fine opera-films are on view. One is Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's adaptation of Wagner's ''Parsifal.'' The other is Franco Zeffirelli's new version of Verdi's ''La Traviata,'' starring Teresa Stratas, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil.

Both films reflect the love of splendor and scope that cinema and opera share. The screen ''Parsifal,'' for example, is mounted on huge settings and decked out with cinematic surprises, including rear projections and elegant camera angles.

It's as big and bold as Wagner could have wished. And yet it doesn't surpass, for sheer grandeur, such a spectacular stage production as the ''Parsifal'' of the Metropolitan Opera. For all the extravagance of Syberberg's approach, he finds no visual treats to outdo the Met's vision of Klingsor's castle or of the ''transformation scene'' when a sylvan setting gives way to a gloomy interior right before our eyes.

Nor does Syberberg come up with more delicate nuances than the Met - as when, in the stage ''Parsifal,'' knights raise their arms in prayer and the curved lines of their bodies match the bent patterns of the woods around them.

There's more amazement in the florid zeal of ''La Traviata'' as reworked on film, since we're used to more intimate treatments of this robustly romantic work. Zeffirelli pulls out every musical and cinematic stop, restraining his imagery for the more intense moments between the protagonists, but otherwise reveling in a sensuous torrent of sight and sound.

It's a movie just as much as an opera, and it smacks as much of Zeffirelli as of Verdi, especially when it uses cinematic resources to enrich the action in specifically cinematic ways. No stage production, for example, could punctuate scenes so slyly - as when a dowager sneakily pilfers a knickknack during the early banquet scene - and still be sure the small touches would be noticed. And of course no live version could swoop so freely from place to place or bring so many perspectives to bear on the story.

Ironically, though, Zeffirelli feels the movie is too small in scale! ''I cut it down too much,'' he told me the other day in a Manhattan hotel suite during a visit here. When he showed the film at the Rome Opera, he says, ''It didn't fill the place. The proscenium is so much larger than that little stamp of a screen. I should have given the picture more splendor, like 'Ben Hur' or the old D.W. Griffith movies.''

Zeffirelli feels opera must be far larger than life, whether heard live or on film. ''This is the tradition of opera,'' he says in his melodic Italian accent. ''Just look at the opera theaters. They were built to cradle these creations - splendid cathedrals of gold and crystal and chandeliers. And rightly so. After all, you're dealing with 100 instruments and glorious voices and ballet and grand passions. Opera must be large to sustain visually the splendor of it all.''

Film, he feels, is a fine tool for catching that essential richness. ''Cinema can be anything you want,'' he says - ''a great epic, an intimate story, something to make you laugh or cry.'' And opera is a valid subject, even a natural subject, for film treatment.

Zeffirelli grants that seeing an opera at the movies isn't the same as ''really being there as the music happens.'' But there are advantages to the motion-picture format.

One is subtitles, ''which allow you to follow the drama line by line for the first time.'' Another is closeups. ''They can show the thoughts and feelings of a human being,'' he says. ''How different this is from the opera house, where the closest you can be is 36 feet, if you're lucky.''

On this subject Zeffirelli moves far from musical purists who insist on live opera. ''They say it doesn't matter how far you are from the singers,'' he remarks, ''because the music and singing will make you imagine everything.

''But if that's true,'' he continues, ''you might as well stay home and listen to records. What's the difference between a great interpretation and a poor one? The great singer acts, and this adds something to the interpretation. Cinema can bring the audience closer to this and help us know more about the character.''

Until now, most opera films have been made by movie directors with little or no operatic experience. (An exception is ''The Magic Flute'' by Ingmar Bergman, which was a filmed version of a stage production.) Zeffirelli has long experience in both media, though, and treats them with equal respect. Indeed, the only surprise about him filming an opera is that it didn't happen sooner - and he's a little surprised about that himself. ''They say my movies have always been operatic, and my operas have always been cinematic,'' he says with a smile. ''The marriage had to happen.''

He chose ''La Traviata'' largely because he wanted an opera with a good plot. ''The great success of 19th-century operas depended on the story, the drama,'' he says. He also feels his own best pictures - ''Romeo and Juliet'' and ''Jesus of Nazareth'' - were projects that didn't depend on an original script. ''The structure was already there,'' he remarks. ''We just built on it.''

Zeffirelli is unruffled by the problems I see in the very nature of filmed opera. He grants that opera and cinema have rhythms and dynamics of their own, but maintains that careful handling - something he didn't always manage in ''Traviata,'' he admits - can merge the media satisfactorily.

As for the split between image and sound caused by common filmmaking techniques, this is no problem for an audience willing to make a ''leap of good will,'' says the director. In any case, he recognized such problems from the beginning and used a whole bag of tricks to assemble ''Traviata.'' Sometimes the performers would ''lip-sync'' to music already recorded, sometimes they would return to the studio after filming to re-record a scene, and sometimes the singing was captured ''live'' as the cameras rolled. This last technique will be the future salvation of opera films, he believes, though it's ''devilishly tricky'' to carry off.

''La Traviata'' has been well received. Audiences in Paris made it the biggest hit after ''E.T.,'' with 800,000 spectators flocking to it in less than two months, and American critics have been enthusiastic. If the momentum keeps up, and maybe even if it doesn't, Zeffirelli will pursue plans for more operatic movies - ''Otello'' being a likely candidate along with ''Carmen'' and ''Aida.''

One plan he doesn't have, though, is seeing the cinematic ''Parsifal.'' Says the opinionated expert, ''I can hardly bear it on the stage. I don't want to imagine what the film must be like. . . .'' Flamboyant vision

There has never been a movie like ''The Falls,'' and there probably won't be many imitators, either. It's a mad, flamboyant vision that couldn't have sprung from anywhere but the imagination of Peter Greenaway, who is emerging as one of the most strikingly original talents on the cinema scene.

The film takes place in the future, after something called the Violent Unknown Event, or VUE. This was an apocalyptic something-or-other that claimed 92 million victims - who began speaking new languages, experiencing new ailments , and in some cases changing into birds.

''The Falls'' is a report on the VUE aftermath. It consists of 92 interviews (all fictional, of course) with people whose last names include the syllable ''fall.'' The events of the VUE, and their human consequences, reveal themselves bit by bit as the ''documentary'' unfolds. Watching it is like putting together a vast puzzle - and I mean vast, at more than three hours long - complicated by new visual and linguistic twists in almost every scene.

Not all of Greenaway's work is so bizarre. ''The Draughtsman's Contract,'' due soon for American release, is a comparatively conventional costume drama about an artist who mixes a professional project with amorous intrigue, leading to dark results. It tells its story in fairly normal fashion. Yet it shares the fascination with structure which marks ''The Falls'' and takes similar pleasure in surrounding a narrative theme with rigorously worked-out variations. It also can't resist occasional flights of sheer fancy, ranging in mood from charming to strangely distasteful.

Some of Greenaway's habits irritate me - his aggressive soundtracks, especially, and his relentless pacing. Yet he's certainly an original, and I have enormous respect for his courage and energy. We'll be hearing lots more from him, for certain. ''The Draughtsman's Contract'' will be opening in theaters shortly. ''The Falls'' is now running at the Public Theater in Manhattan, where it will be screened nightly through Sunday as part of a series called ''London Calling: the American Film Institute Salutes the British Film Institute - Independent Film, 1951-1982.'' The series will continue with a wide variety of other films through May 22. Films that stoop

You don't expect subtlety when you go to a movie called ''The Evil Dead,'' but this is ridiculous. After a few minutes of buildup, it's just mechanical mayhem in scene after scene, clearly meant to imitate the ghastly ''Friday the 13th'' that struck box office gold a while back.

Which prompts a question: Why do people troop to films that feature other people being butchered by unspeakable villains? Perhaps they enjoy identifying with the hero, though ''The Evil Dead'' even dispatches him at the very last minute. Or maybe it's the adolescent yen for adventure - these pictures attract mainly young folks - that gets a few feeble jolts from the crudely inventive action.

Whatever the answer, there must be better ways too attract the teen-age and young-adult crowd than cold, purposeless violence inflicted with clockwork regularity on one-dimensional characters. It's encouraging to note that the cheapest horror films have dwindled in popularity lately; perhaps the success of more wholesome fantasies - ''E.T.'' and its ilk - has siphoned off some of the horror constituency. But there's still room for improvement. Nobody needs this kind of stuff.

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