Opera Meets Film: A Deep Dive Into Anthony Roth Costanzo’s ‘Glass Handel’ (Part Two)

By Gareth Mattey

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features “Glass / Handel.”

In Part One of this article, we looked at how Costanzo’s “Glass/Handel” project opens up the line between opera film and music video and how different directors responded to setting Glass’ music, with rhythm, passion and modernity in mind.

In Part Two, I want to focus on the music videos of Handel’s work – how do you make a music video of Handel’s arias? How do they differ from the Glass arias in this project? And is Costanzo’s project successful from a filmic perspective – do we see what connects Glass and Handel as composers across centuries?

Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto: Inumano fratel / Aria: Stille amare

The longest video in this project at just under 10 minutes, it sets both an excerpt of recitative and an aria from Handel’s “Tolomeo,” a story of love, lust, and revenge in Ptolemaic Egypt. Directed by James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory Productions and “Call Me By Your Name” fame) and Pix Talarico (a TV and video director based in New York), this work stands out amongst the others for more than just its length. It is the only one with a historical setting, the only one to feature noise and sound separate from the opera, and the only one to feature the music video trope of the artist as its protagonist (Costanzo had also in fact been directed by James Ivory early in his career as an actor in the film “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries”).

Set in a medieval era, we follow a knight as he leaves behind a defeated foe, crossing a field and a forest in search of water. Upon finding the water, he takes off his helmet to drink and to wade in, only to be discovered by another knight. The ending reveals them to not be enemies however, as the other knight rescues Costanzo from the water, cradles him, and helps him to walk away.

While set in a different historical era to the opera’s setting, it draws directly on the lyrics in developing its narrative – from liquid imagery (poison within the opera, water in the video) to a protagonist seemingly close to death. From Costanzo’s first purposeful stride into the video and into the music, the lyrics offer us further possible interpretations. Is the body at the beginning in fact the ‘inhuman brother’ of the recitative?

The simple narrative of a knight’s journey is shot in a similarly simple yet beautiful way, often highlighting the way the armored Costanzo stands out amongst his natural surroundings. The video doesn’t closely follow the shape of the music, aside from offering a clear dividing line between the recitative and aria with a slow descending shot through the forest. Above all, it follows Costanzo’s knight, drawing especially close when the two knights are together in the river, offering a subtle homoerotic tone as he holds him close and touches his head to his.

The greater length, narrative and character focus, cinematic aspect ratio, and possible closer relationship between text and story ultimately make this feel more like a short film/opera film than a music video, offering another totally different approach to the setting of opera and film within the “Glass/Handel” project.

Rodelinda: Vivi, tiranno, io t’ho scampato

An aria from the third act of one of Handel’s most successful operas, “Rodelinda,” “Vivi, tiranno” sees the usurped King of Lombardy grant life to his enemy, the duke who had usurped him. In Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari’s, the grand power of this command is satirized with a vibrant pop-art style video that brings together surprising and often bizarrely sexual images with the text of the aria itself, against bold single color backgrounds.

It is the only video within the project that aims for an outrageous sense of comedy, that aims to satirize not only the aria to hand, but Costanzo’s voice, the ridiculous nature of opera, and music videos themselves.

Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari are an artistic collaboration encompassing photography, design, video, and sculpture (Cattelan is most well-known for his solid gold toilet sculpture, “America”). They describe their practice as combining ‘the vernacular of commercial image-making with witty tableaux and surrealism’ and this is on great display in this video.

Food is very present within this video – from phallic hotdogs stuffed into hair curls, to strange 1950s-esque dishes, and worse, something is nearly always being consumed. There is also the strange feeling of a shopping channel for impossible and horrible items merging with a porn video fetishizing those same items. It shows endless consumption, like a surreal advert taken to exhausting and ridiculous extremes of bad taste (even including a pointless flicker of black face, something the opera world categorically needs less of). It returns us to the critique of music videos as nothing more than an advert for the artist at hand.

The focus on consumption also links the video to Brecht’s criticisms of opera, an art form he often derided as more culinary than intellectual, nothing more than another taste for the bourgeoisie to acquire. It is also the only video in the project to feature mouths in sync to the aria, but all of them are ridiculous – from a skull puppet and dentures, to Monty Python style cut outs where even the cats are joining in.

Nothing displays this more than the way we are introduced to Costanzo’s voice – which compares Costanzo’s countertenor voice as being similar to the unexpected surprise of a woman with a ‘cock’ (chicken) between her legs. Where other videos in this project have explored how the image can respect the music and the voice, Cattelan and Ferrari are more interested in mocking it and pulling it down from its gilded pedestal with this undeniably fun and strangely political exercise in terrible taste.

Amadigi di Gaula: Pena Tiranna

The aria “Penna Tiranna,” noted for its prominent bassoon part, focuses on a heart besieged by grief and love that cannot find peace, and comes from the second act of “Amadigi di Gaula,” an opera replete with magic and tortured love. The video, directed by Russian video-art collective AES+F again steers clear of the plot of the opera to create something set in a version of our modern world, a story of domination (possibly both sexual and political/societal) within a contemporary industrial landscape.

AES+F are especially well known for their large scale video-art, driven less by narrative concerns, and described by Gareth Harris as “monumental painting set in motion”. Similarly, in their video to this aria, a singular voice supports a two large groups – an elegantly dressed group of women of all ages and an attractive group of younger men, often stripped and restrained, at their mercy. In its laconic movement from one scene of semi-nude constraint to the next, with the women’s hands often touching and exploring them, the men seem resigned to their fate, even possibly content to be in their position. In using fantastical BDSM apparatus, there is an understated eroticism that flows throughout, reflecting the core emotion of the song – the metaphorical constraints imposed by a woman upon the heart in the aria become literal ones in AES+F’s video.

This is not to say the video exists without threat. In one moment, a woman brings a pair of bolt cutters dangerously close to a restrained male’s groin. This directly refers to the original singers that would have played the role Costanzo now sings – the castrati – and demonstrates a similar play with gender and Costanzo’s voice as is found in Vivi, tiranno.”

At the ending of the video, flying composite monsters join the women and are fawned upon and touched as much as the men before flying away once more. It is a strange moment that dramatically, musically, and visually, emerges from nowhere, offering a monstrous comparison to the restrained men (literally and metaphorically) before leaving. It is as if the figures from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch decide to invade this matriarchal world, offering an image of opera as deeply erotic, deeply unsettling and unthreatening, and only ever one step away from the surreal and the unexpected.



Flavio: Rompo I Lacci

Drawn from “Flavio,” a tragicomic historical opera about the conflicts of love, revenge, and statecraft, “Rompo I lacci” is an aria about breaking the snares and darts that love has over you, while recognizing the paradox of being unable to live without love in the next lines.

In this music video, directed by Tilda Swinton and video artist Sandro Kopp, we are presented with a very different visual world – their dogs wild at play on a beach and in the water. If anything, it translates the opening words of the aria in the most literal of ways – “I break the bonds” becomes dogs at play without any leads to hold them back. The music begins sharply with the entrance of the dogs and we are led to see the two as closely related, the dogs’ wild abandon reflected in Handel’s music and vice versa, creating an energetic and dynamic visual world.

Much of this video, at first, has the appearance of home movie footage, far from the grand politics and personalities of the opera from which it comes. Tilda Swinton has a long history with the director Derek Jarman of performing in opera films, and Kopp’s practice is often focused on portraits of individuals mediated through digital means (such as Skype) so the personal nature of this, a video portrait of the couple’s dogs, feels essential.

It also demonstrates an important creative facet of Costanzo’s project – many of the Handel videos are directed by collaborations and collectives. This aspect of the project leads us away from an auteur-driven approach to film and video and reminds us that opera is at its heart a collaborative art form.

Throughout the video, the directors frequently use slow-motion effects, shifting the rhythm of the visual action into and out of sync with Handel’s aria at key musical and dramatic shifts. At two moments towards the end, the directors shift the image into the surreal – mirroring the dogs and showing them in reverse (from frenetically playing in the water to patiently waiting) and towards the climax, mirroring the image of a dog jumping towards the camera to create a momentarily monstrous image.

As the music comes to an end as the dogs leave the frame of the camera, we are left with a video that is wholly unexpected as a response to Handel’s work, one that seems to foreground the frenetic power and energy of the voice in baroque music while, like others in this series, being only one step away from the surreal. Costanzo’s assured coloratura in Swinton’s and Kopp’s hands becomes the frenetic playground of domestic animals off the leash, ‘breaking the bonds’ and leaping towards the sea.

Rinaldo: Lascia ch’io pianga

Directed by James Kaliardo, an artist in fashion, makeup, and film, and founder of Visionaire, one of the partners in producing the music videos for “Glass/Handel,” “Lascia ch’io pianga” is one of Handel’s most famous arias from the opera “Rinaldo.”

A song of weeping and despair scored traditionally for soprano voice, this aria has featured heavily in both concert repertoire and in cinematic soundtracks, notably in films on twisted and taboo passions like “L.I.E.” by Michael Cuesta and Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.” Compared with some of the other arias in the project, it therefore has a more established cinematic presence, furthered by this video in the casting of film actor Marisa Tomei as the video’s sole focus.

Within the video, Tomei is transformed via makeup and video effects into the likeness of famed opera diva Maria Callas. This transformation is furthered by the overlapping and superimposing of real images and footage of Callas herself on top of Tomei as she poses and mimes, but never lip-synchs.

In a statement to WXQR, Kaliardos describes them as “inspired by Maria Callas as the epitome of a woman in a male-dominated industry, and against all odds, striving for her right to be the artist she wanted to be. Marisa was able to use the beautiful mask of Maria to unleash her artistry and sorrow.”

In light of this, the video takes on the quality of a séance in a way, as Costanzo, Kaliardos and Tomei use this aria and the possibilities of video to make contact with Callas and her artistry, even as the soprano aria becomes a home for Costanzo’s countertenor.

The final image of the video is of Tomei weeping, her makeup streaking down her face. This matches the slow emotional intensity of the aria, where the character Almirena is weeping at her captivity to the Saracen king of Jerusalem. Within this video, however, which strays from the opera’s context and often at times from the aria’s tempo, what is Tomei’s character weeping for? Is she weeping for the loss of Callas and the loss of her voice from the world of opera? Is she a listener affected by the emotional quality of the aria? The video ends on this open interpretative note, forging a direct connection between viewer and Tomei and prioritizing the rich sorrow of Handel’s music.

George Frideric Handel on Video

In understanding these videos as part of the wider “Glass/Handel” project, it becomes apparent that what most unites directors responding to both composers is rhythm, pacing, and especially energy – both “Vivi, tiranno” and “Rompo I lacci” in particular demonstrate a similar interest in the momentum the music affords (especially through coloratura sections) that the Glass videos demonstrated.

Similarly, Handel is not treated as a historical entity in comparison to Glass – aside from only one historically set video, the entire project has a contemporary visual style and approach that validates the reasoning behind Costanzo’s “Glass/Handel” project and develops the discussion on the possibilities of and boundaries between music video, video art and opera film.

Where the Handel videos most notably differ from the Glass videos is in the influence of the erotic – the baroque voice and coloratura (and frequent lyrical obsession with love and pain) inspiring nearly all of the directors either explicitly or implicitly towards the erotic. This eroticism is a contemporary one too, from the subtle homoerotic tones of Ivory/Talarico’s medieval journey to the outré fetishism of AES+F and Cattelan/Ferrari’s work. It is a sexual dimension filtering beyond just this project and into the wider appreciation of baroque music in film today, and one that interpretations of Glass’ music rarely offer, but a dimension that makes us recognise Handel and his music as more contemporary to audiences and people today than we might have expected.


Opera Meets Film