Shortly before his death, Giuseppe Verdi created the "Casa di Riposo" (quite literally, "rest home") in Milan for retired opera singers. For many years, the house was funded by royalties from Verdi's operas, so the musicians who served his work so faithfully could spend their waning years in a comfortable and appreciative environment. Il Bacio di Tosca is a documentary film about life in the Casa di Riposo as it was in 1984. It is likely that the dozen or so singers whom we meet in this film – all of them physically frail to varying degrees – are no longer among the living in 2004, but Il Bacio di Tosca reminds us of the Latin phrase Vita brevis, ars longa – life is short, art endures.
The film centers around Sara Scuderi, a soprano who was a prominent interpreter of verismo roles in the 1940s. As a resident of the Casa di Riposa, the elderly Madame Scuderi spends her days talking to other residents, looking back on her career, and singing in a voice that is aged but still unmistakably grand. Somewhat short of breath, she is still capable of granting a visitor's request for her to sing "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, which was her signature role. (She walks the halls of the Casa still holding Tosca's prop cane, but now more by necessity than for dramatic effect.) Her mind is sharp, and as she sits in a common room, hearing her 1948 recording of "Vissi d'arte" on the phonograph, she remarks how beautiful it is, without a trace of either regret or egotism. In other scenes, tenors of bygone days belt out Neapolitan songs around the Casa's piano, and a baritone from the 1940s and 50s goes through the contents of his costume trunk as he sings snippets from Rigoletto. Several of the residents gather to rehearse "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco with voices that are cracked but committed. For them, 30 years since retirement are almost indistinguishable from three – time has telescoped, now that they are no longer treading the boards. Il Bacio di Tosca is deeply moving – never pathetic! – and, at times, extremely funny – but not ridiculous! Watching this film, I was reminded why I care about older musicians and about the music they made. Only when no one remembers them anymore are they truly dead. Fortunately, with recordings and film aiding our memories, these singers, instrumentalists, conductors, and composers need never fade from memory, and they may live forever. How many of us can say that? Also, this film reminds us that old age need not be sad, and that the elderly should not – must not – be forgotten, because they are our only living link with the past. They gave us so much, and we owe them so much in return.
Schmid's film is sympathetic and respectful. He patiently lets each resident speak. At first, I was frustrated that Schmid does not identify everyone with subtitles. Their names are in the credits, however. Perhaps this was the filmmaker's way of maintaining a respectful distance. Scuderi is the most famous singer here, although there is a brief visit from the still glamorous Giulietta Simionato, a member of the Casa's governing board.
This is an inspiring film, not just for opera-lovers, but for anyone who recognizes that old age and frailty in no way diminish the value of an individual. In this youth-obsessed society, this is a crucial lesson.
As a bonus, there are brief interviews (in German and English) with Schmid, and three audio-only tracks of three of Scuderi's recordings from 1948: "Vissi d'arte," "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" (La Bohème), and "La mamma morta" (Andrea Chénier). These are somewhat hard to find, however – they may be accessed through the "Cast" section of the Special Features menu.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle