The Death of Maria Malibran


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The Death of Maria Malibran

The Spanish singer gets an unusual biographical treatment.


Maria Malibran was one of the most lauded mezzo-sopranos of her time when she died in 1836 at just 28 years old, after falling off her horse. The enfant terrible of German cinema, Werner Schroeter, supplied an even stranger postscript to that strange end, The Death of Maria Malibran. Both lovely and taxing, it’s an unorthodox biopic that as its first point of order changes its subject’s cause of death to suicide by singing.

A touchstone for subsequent (and better known) postmodern biographical portraits like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, which recasts Bob Dylan as six widely disparate characters, Schroeter’s film is perhaps best understood as an opera aficionado’s self-conscious attempt to recreate the opera form in a fundamentally different medium. The impossibility of such adaptations—from life to biography, or opera to film—fuels Schroeter’s warm and often quite funny approach to the telling of a life story.

Schroeter stages the singer’s history as a series of baroque tableux that call attention to the artificiality of the premise, as when the audio track picks up some unfortunate microphone feedback, or when the camera awkwardly zooms out to better frame a performance, as if in a home movie of a talent show. Those deliberate winks to the clumsy nature of both stagecraft and filmmaking are a nice counterpoint to the often gorgeously dilapidated, baroque set design and costumes, as well as to the statuesque performances of Schroeter muse Magdalene Montezuma and Andy Warhol favourite Candy Darling, which were praised by no less than French theorist Michel Foucault. Come for the formal playfulness, but stay for the surprising reference to Janis Joplin.

Sunday’s screening will be introduced by Alexander Neef, the general director of the Canadian Opera Company.