Thrill as the withered opera hags revisit their vital past! Scream as the mock-incestuous-lesbian sisters kiss and waltz! Shudder as hunky baritone Sergei Larin makes goo-goo eyes at a twink!
Werner Schroeter’s film on love, death, and opera is especially welcome at the end of a cinematic summer (1996) filled with butt-kicking presidents, aerobicized female Navy Seals, and the usual tired parade of car crashes and airplane blow-ups. Schroeter’s focus on aging European divas, while ensuring a limited audience, is refreshingly perverse. And his leisurely, impressionistic narrative looks positively radical in an era when movie directors are routinely recruited from the netherworld of television commercials and MTV, where they learned the kind of super-rapid cutting and attention to mindless violence that demographics suggest audiences crave.
The premise of Love’s Debris is simple: assemble a group of opera singers, mostly female, in a ruined 13th-century abbey and have them perform and pontificate on subjects ranging from the source of their talent, to the inevitable decline of their powers, to the nagging nearness of death. Roland Barthes’ question “Why and how do singers find their emotions in their voice?” is the film’s starting point. To find answers, Schroeter asked legends like Martha Mödl, Rita Gorr, and Anita Cerquetti to pick a favorite aria to perform, and to bring along a wife, husband, lover, or anyone who’s figured importantly in their lives. Other, more contemporary singers like Kristine and Katherine Ciesinski, Gail Gilmore, and Jenny Drivala appear, along with a pair of tenors, Laurence Dale and the robust Russian, Sergei Larin.
While no one of the performers in this ensemble piece could be called the star, Anita Cerquetti comes closest. During a somewhat testy interview, this mega-diva, who looks like a Roman general in drag, tries to explain to French actress Carole Bouquet why she stopped singing at the height of her powers and career at age 29: “Life goes on. In life there isn’t only singing.” This sensible insight informs the entire film. Schroeter tries to delve into the mysteries of the voice, but interrupts the quest by consistently cutting to images of the ancient, worn walls of the abbey and to the world outside, counterpointing a musical motif with a pink dawn sky or a barge moving slowly upriver.
Cerquetti also has the film’s single finest moment when she listens to her recording of “Casta Diva.” Detached at first, she becomes increasingly swept up in the emotion of the song, just as the viewer does. Eventually she’s singing along with it, her lined face suffused with emotion as she makes a visible connection with her own past. Throughout the film she plays magnificently to the viewer’s image of the grand diva ravaged by time and her own emotional turmoil: “Anguish, unfortunately, is a feeling I know well,” she says, with no self-pity. On the other hand, she shows a deep understanding of the dangerous power of the music and her gift to express it. When she first sang before an audience, she says, she noticed that “others were feeling what I wanted them to feel. This was a great discovery.”
The no-nonsense Martha Mödl has a similarly strong, if more understated scene where she listens, with actress Isabelle Huppert, to a recording she made decades before of an aria from Fidelio. During a talk with Schroeter and Huppert, she expresses her dislike of “perfection,” because “much emotion gets lost.” But her voice in its prime has a kind of emotional perfection that obviously strikes her as she listens to it; her face shows amusement and delight in her own brilliance. Another Mödl highlight is her performance in the film of the Grety aria complete, a subtle rendering that makes up in spirit what it lacks in “perfection.”
If the holy trinity of opera comprised of Cerquetti, Mödl, and Rita Gorr represent the film’s high points, Schroeter’s occasional pomp and pretense undermine other sequences. While the singers were told to choose their favorite aria and costumes, surely Schroeter could have intervened when Laurence Dane arrived in pancake makeup and began to shriek his selection. Some fans have also objected to the fact that the director painfully reprises some of Dane’s failed high notes, rubbing his (and our) nose in an obvious musical mistake. Another bizarre moment is Schroeter’s too-long embrace of Anita Cerquetti: it looks like Her Heftiness is trying desperately to extricate herself from a berserk fan. It doesn’t help that he then kneels before her and sticks his head in her lap.
If “opera” and “queer” are inextricably linked terms, Schroeter finds amusingly weird ways to play off them. While the Ciesinski sisters are not known to be incestuous dykes in real life, here they portray ornately dressed lesbians, serenading each other up and down staircases, hugging romantically, and kissing each other on the lips between musical phrases. Most curious, though, is the sequence with sexy Sergei Larin, who discusses romantic poetry with an unidentified Italian twink. Larin is married with children, but this scene has led some to believe Love’s Debris is his coming-out. And no wonder. His pursuit of the twink, characterized by longing looks, a halting bedroom pursuit, and sweetly lyrical declarations of “I love you!,” is charged with eroticism.
Love’s Debris never quite answers the question about how singers find emotion in their voices, a failure Martha Mödl shrugs off with bracing directness, “I don’t know myself how I sing.” Mödl’s vibrancy and power even at age 83 suggests that such voices are as timeless as the abbey in which they were recorded; they need no justification or explanation.