No other opera singer this century has aroused such public interest, such adulation and such controversy as Maria Callas, "La Divina Assoluta." Her dramatic and musical reincarnations of operatic heroines were invested with a psychological depth which made her performances and recordings definitive, and her recordings still outsell every other major classical singer. Callas transformed herself from an overweight ugly duckling into a dazzling beauty, inspired by the sylph-like Audrey Hepburn. She was labeled a "tigress" for her temperamental image, others thought her behavior so unforgivable she was pelted with eggs, but her unique and haunting voice and personality dominated public life in the 1950s and early 1960s. Tony Palmer's award-winning film charts her rapid rise to fame and offers a glimpse into the private life of this remarkable woman. 91 minutes.
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It is almost a quarter of a century since Maria Callas died. But the years have done little to diminish interest in this most iconic of divas. The debate surrounding the real quality of that voice continues to be fanned by her devotees and detractors, intermittently reaching fever pitch with the arrival of another biography or the commercial release of a newly discovered live recording. Tony Palmer's 1987 film portrait, now available on DVD, towers over the bulk of contributions to the Callas industry because it manages to be both passionate about its subject and objective about the forces that shaped a great musical talent and then left it in ruins.
Lengthy interviews with colleagues and confidants embrace both Callas's undoubted theatrical genius and the emotional traumas that propelled her stumbling private life. The scene is set from the moment this documentary's producer, John Ardoin (himself a Callas biographer), declares the story of Callas the woman to be one of the great tragedies of our time. From that point, the film forges potent links between the evolution of the diva's artistry through her great performances--Tosca, in particular--and the defiant soul captured in a considerable archive of media encounters that range from the intense and contemptuous to the coquettish. This is 90 essential minutes for anyone interested in the Callas legend. Her story will never be better told. --Piers Ford
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