Opera Meets Film: Luchino Visconti’s Masterful Use of Verdi & Bellini’s Music in ‘The Leopard’

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 Lucino Visconti’s “The Leopard.”

Opera is everywhere in Visconti’s greatest masterpiece, a film about the decline of the Italian aristocracy in the midst of the Risorgimento. The film centers on one particular family led by Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster in one of the great cinematic turns of all time).

We previously explored how Visconti explicitly utilizes opera at the start of “Senso” and allows it to filter into the rest of his narrative. But here, the use of the art form is similarly explicit, the thematic implications are subtle in their use, matching a similarly ponderous narrative.

In the midst of the film’s three-hour running time, the operatic excerpts are rather brief. But like everything in this film, they are essential details in Visconti’s vast and emotional tapestry.

First, we see a scene in which the family sits in their luxurious summer palace at Donnafugata listening to a concert performance from one of Tancredi’s soldier friends and one of the Prince’s daughters at the piano. The soldier is interpreting “Vi ravviso” from “La Sonnambula.” Quietly it is amongst the most powerful scenes in a film full of iconic and glorious moments. The aria finds the Count Rodolfo arriving in the village and not only admiring the village, but remembering it fondly. It’s a nostalgic aria with the other characters seemingly surprised by the Count’s familiarity with the locale. The aria’s feeling is one of glorious nostalgia, ending with the words, “Non trovo più,” the implication that the Count will never be able to regain those cherished memories he once had in this place.

The Prince of Salina might as well be the stand-in for Count Rodolfo in the midst of this political change going on around him. He knows what is happening. He loves his country, his position, his lifestyle, but he knows that, eventually, he and his family will be no more. The aria thus expresses what the Prince of Salina leaves unsaid for the duration of the film.

But the aria doesn’t just express Salina’s thoughts. It goes deeper. It can’t be lost on anyone that this aria comes from “La Sonnambula,” an opera about a girl who sleepwalks and gets herself into some serious trouble because of lack of lucidity. The same goes for the people around her in the village – they see her as a ghost, accuse her of infidelity, but ultimately come to understanding her when they are awakened from their ignorance.

As the singer performs for the family of the Prince of Salina, Visconti cuts around to reactions of the other family members as they take in the performance. A few of them are fast asleep, including the Prince’s wife and the priest who has served as his confident. The two of them chide the Prince’s actions throughout the film, but both of them seem completely ignorant or unwilling to come to terms with the major changes life will have around them. The reaction shots definitely elicit laughter from the audience, especially given the overall context of the scene. But this humor is a subtle jab that reminds the audience that the privileged are closed off, “asleep” if you will, to the real world around them.

But Visconti doesn’t end his critique there. He goes one step further in the very next scene when the family heads to church. In a rather lengthy scene, Visconti portrays the family engaging in a procession to church. The ceremonious nature of the event is accompanied not by some lush score by composer Nino Rota, but by a local banda playing “Noi siamo zingarelle” from Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

In many ways the scene acts as a counterpoint to the one preceding it. Whereas Bellini’s aria was presented with utmost delicacy and beauty, the brass banda here is crude and even noticeably off-pitch, creating a dramatic irony. As such, the family’s procession, a moment of notable pride comes off as less than that due to the music’s irritable nature. Even when the piece comes to its conclusion, Visconti has the banda repeat it, adding to the irritability. In many ways, despite the music’s joviality, the sequence reads more like a funeral march than the triumphal march it suggests.

This is furthered in the ensuing sequence when the family eventually makes its way into the church, the organist takes on another tune from “La Traviata” – Violetta’s famed “Amami, Alfredo,” a plea for love in the midst of pain and impending tragedy. Again, this no accident because at the close of this sequence, Visconti will produce one of his most iconic images – a dolly passing each one of the members of the Salina family, all of them still as statues and full of dust. The intention could not be clearer in presenting the ruling aristocrats as dying remnants.

This scene gets added context when we head to the film’s grand finale, a climactic waltz scene accompanied by, among very few other things, a tuneful waltz by Verdi. This waltz is repeated several times throughout the colorful and jovial 45-minute sequence, and in the context of the other bubbly melodious dances throughout, the listener and viewer feels the repetition rather potently. It all blends together to create a feeling of superfluous lavishness. Contrasted by Burt Lancaster’s immersive and introspective performance, the juxtaposition creates a dream-like quality to the entire sequence, all while providing a stunning final critique and eulogy for the world portrayed.

As such, Visconti uses these diegetic musical moments to create a sense of both nostalgia and critique for the aristocracy. It dovetails beautifully with our feelings about the film’s central character – the Prince himself. We see him as a man of questionable morals. He blames his wife for his infidelity. He picks his nephews political aspirations over his daughter’s happiness. He lives in his own world, seemingly indifferent to what goes on around him. As such, we see him as a ruthless aristocrat whose enviable lifestyle and his lack of concern keeps us at a distance.

And yet, Visconti makes us feel his increasing pain as he comes to terms with his fate and that of his world and life. Throughout those final 45 minutes, Lancaster and Visconti cast a spell that really pulls you into his existential crisis. By the end of the film, with the veneer of his wealth seemingly stripped from him as he walks down a dark and lonely alley, we see him as a human being coming to grips with a sense of loss and powerlessness in the midst of it all.


Opera Meets Film