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Thursday, July 26, 2012

[YOUNG] TOSCANINI

C. Thomas Howell as the great conductor
TOSCANINI (aka Young Toscanini and Il giovane Toscanini/1988). Director: Franco Zeffirelli.

NOTE: As I have only seen the Italian-language version of this film, this post is more of a report on the movie than a review.

It sounds like something that could only happen in a movie, but it really did happen: When he was 19- years-old musician [and chorus master] Arturo Toscanini was working on a production of Verdi's "Aida" in Rio de Janeiro when the conductor proved so inept that the singers threatened to go on strike if the general manager didn't replace him. When two successive conductors couldn't handle the score, Toscanini, who knew the whole opera, was importuned to take over at the podium despite the fact he'd never conducted before. Toscanini did an excellent job, and became one of the world's most famous conductors of operas and classical music.

Okay, you know how the movie ends, but that's history. Toscanini shows the young artist (C. Thomas Howell) being rejected as a cellist at La scala due to his temperament, then follows him as he joins a South American tour and winds up in Brazil. There he romances a young lady, Margherita (Sophie Ward, who has a great face), who ministers to the poor in Rio, and also meets an idol of his, the [probably fictional] soprano Nadina Bulichoff (Elizabeth Taylor), who is coming out of retirement to appear in "Aida." During the opera she enrages the powers-that-be by denouncing the slavery [part of the plot of the opera] that is still being practiced in Brazil.

Toscanini is a handsome picture with beautiful settings and musical backgrounds. Tenor Carlo Bergonzi appears in the film -- and sings! -- and the production of "Aida" looks quite magnificent. An especially charming scene has Arturo playing for the sweet-faced children of Rio; a more somber moment has him discovering that some of these children have died.

As an English-language or sub-titled version of the film is unavailable, it is hard to judge the dramatic viability of the film unless you understand Italian. Howell and Taylor have been dubbed by Italian actors. [The DVD release of the film says that it has both English and Korean sub-titles, but it only has Korean.] The film is certainly good to look at, and appears to have several tense and dramatic sequences.

Some may feel that the non-Italian casting of the leads is rather odd. If Zeffirelli were hoping Howell and Taylor would improve the film's chances of American success he was mistaken. Taylor was no longer box office in 1988, and while Howell had appeared in such successful "teen" films as The Outsiders, his fans probably didn't know who Toscanini was. He seems quite intense and romantic in the part. [Toscanini was a good-looking man, although probably not as Hollywood handsome as Howell.] So in the long run, sadly, the two actors, good as they are, didn't do the picture much good and vice versa.

Definitely worth a look. And let's hope one with English captions or titles comes out one of these days.

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