Opera Meets Film: How ‘Happy As Lazzaro’ Sets Up Tragic Disappointment With Bellini & Verdi’s Memorable Melodies

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 Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy As Lazzaro.”

“Happy As Lazzaro” is one of the most unique films of the last few years. Displacing time on a number of levels, the film explores a corrupt world through the eyes of a “pure angel” who defies time and space.

The film is set on a tobacco farm called “L’Inviolata,” where a powerful “Queen of Cigarettes” has managed to keep 54 farmhands in a sharecropping arrangement without their understanding that it is not illegal in Italy (the film takes place in 1977). There is no access to the farm and no one knows that this illegal feudal system is taking place. Eventually, it will come to light with the farmhands all transplanted to nearby towns and cities where the titular character, after undergoing a miraculous resurrection meets up with them years later; he is unchanged physically or emotionally by the events.

Director Alice Rohrwacher does an incredible job of maintaining the audience off-kilter throughout the film, particularly in piecing together its world at the off-set. In this context, music plays a very subtle but potent role for the viewer.

Bellini’s “Norma,” and specifically “Casta Diva,” makes multiple appearances in the film’s first hour, all in connection with the insular world of the Queen of Cigarettes, Alfonsina de Luna. We first hear a piano arrangement as she arrives at L’Inviolata with her son Tancredi and then a few scenes later where she and her family sit around for lunch. In a latter scene outdoors, we can hear faint glimpses of the piece.

There isn’t a lot of music in “Happy As Lazzaro,” which makes any appearance very noticeable and memorable. And “Casta Diva,” with its lush and glorious melodic line, is impossible to forget. In the piano arrangement, it softens the world somewhat, tinging it with nostalgia.

But then we hear it in a music box arrangement during a dinner scene, and it comes off as sardonic in nature – further accentuating a dissonance between the ruler of the farm and her servants. In some ways, it grates to listen to this pure aria for veneration and reverence in such a metallic version; this subtly underlines the audience’s own emotional reaction to Alfonsina’s treatment of the servant Antonia in this particular scene.

In this sense, the incredible beauty of “Casta Diva” is undermined and twisted in the same way that the world of Alfonsina exploits the farmhands.

Later in the film, we witness another operatic excerpt make its mark on the music’s soundtrack. This time it is the famed Brindisi from “La Traviata.” And once again, Rohrwacher utilizes an opera passage’s objective meaning and subverts it. Lazzaro, now living with a middle-aged Antonia and her family, head to a pastry shop to buy some sweets to bring over the Marquis de Luna’s home. Years have passed and Antonia and other farmhands from L’Inviolata have continued to live in perpetual poverty. Despite no longer being slaves to field work, they remain slaves to a capitalist society.

They have had a chance encounter with the Marquis Tancredi after all those years and he has invited them to dinner, echoing the first dinner scene that featured “Casta Diva” in music box arrangement. Once more, Antonia is at the center of this encounter.

The group buys the most expensive sweets it can find because they believe that, despite their continued difficulties, the Marquis and his family are in top form. The “Libiamo” underscores their feelings of being finally given the respect and honor that they never got at L’Inviolata.

But there is no celebration in store for them, but more exploitation. They arrive at the Marquis’ home only to find that the invitation was a hoax and that his wife (who was also in that earlier dinner scene) wants the sweets despite having no intention of inviting them in.

It is worth noting that these passages come at the audience before the underlying cruelty of a social situation is fully expressed. Rohrwacher is putting the audience in the farmhands’ emotional mindset as they, in their positivity and naivete, never see through the exploitation of the Marquis and his mother. They always retain a positive ideal of them, even when they know they’ve been swindled. The audience is meant to feel those emotions, even if on a superficial level, only to be left distraught by the eventual outcome. The music, in this case, two famed and uplifting melodies from famed Italian operas, adds to this emotional confusion that is a part of the film’s complex but powerful fabric.


Opera Meets FilmSpecial Features