Opera Meets Film: First Love & Heartbreak In ‘Atonement’ & ‘La Bohème’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting 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 Joe Wright’s incredible “Atonement.”

I love “Atonement.” A romance in the truest sense of the word, Joe Wright’s greatest film to date, is filled with one emotionally charged moment after another, all climaxing into a heartbreaking ending for not just its two central characters, but all those around. Splashing his opening half in glowing green and white, Wright transports us to another world, giving it a celestial richness and melancholy all the same.

There are two main stories going on in this opening segment – the burgeoning romance between Cecilia and Robbie, and how the former’s child sister Briony misinterprets their relationship. As the love story grows in richness and passion, Briony finds it increasingly appalling, for misunderstood reasons.

First Love

At about the midpoint of this 50-minute development, Robbie is seeking out a way to re-connect with his beloved. They have just had a rather contentious, and sexually-charged, encounter in front of Cecilia’s mansion, and he is looking to make amends in the form of a letter. As he seeks inspiration he throws on a recording of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” specifically “O Soave Fanciulla,” recorded by Jussi Björling and Victoria de Los Angeles (of course). In a film so honest and outward about its feelings, it is only fitting that this most famous of love duets take center stage, and in the work’s most iconic recording, no less.

While Cecilia and Robbie share a history together (unlike Mimì and Rodolfo, who are meeting for the first time, their previous encounter is almost akin to a first meeting, as Wright’s close-ups hint that they have never looked at one another in this manner. Certainly, Robbie, who is of a lower class, has never seen Cecilia strip down her clothing and then come out of a fountain completely wet. Interestingly, as she walks by him, annoyed at his stare, Wright cuts to a close-up of her snatching something from his hand, the hand remaining in focus momentarily.

So there we are, listening to “La Bohème” as Robbie tries to write a letter. All the while, Wright cuts to quick shots of Cecilia as she looks in the mirror. We imagine that it is, in fact, Robbie’s perspective as he images Cecilia in all her beauty, the glow around her angelic. The shots come quicker and more often as is this scene develops, the opening minutes repeated and then the duet allowed to progress into the conversation between Rodolfo and Mimì. It is around these moments that we realize that these quick cuts are not just figments of Robbie’s imagination, but actual images of Cecilia getting ready for the upcoming dinner party. This, coupled with the Puccini duet, connects the two lovers, creating a sense that they are both thinking of one another, two voices singing as one.

Prior to this duet, there were hints of sexual tension, but the audience had no real knowledge of the depth of feelings between these two characters. This scene, punctuated by Puccini’s famed duet, is the first moment where we realize that the two are truly in love with one another.


The duet, of course, is another point of reference regarding where this love affair might go. Those familiar with Puccini’s famed masterpiece know that things don’t blissfully go for Mimi and Rodolfo, though they do get one final moment to share together before tragedy strikes.

“Atonement” ultimately comes down to Briony trying to redeem the mistake that ultimately doomed the lovers. She wants to give them back that which she took away and opts for creating “fictional” accounts of what their life might have been like had they been given the chance. However, the tragedy is still far too strong for the viewer, much in the way Rodolfo’s utterances of “Mimì! Mimì!” overpower any sense of fulfillment the two lovers’ final declaration of their feelings might have had on the listener.


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