Senso is a 1954 film by Luchino Visconti. It is based in part on a novella by Camillo Boito, the elder brother of Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito.
Camillo Boito was a polymath, an accomplished writer, critic, engineer, and architect. Commissioned by Verdi, he designed the Casa di riposo per musicisti in Milan, the rest home for aged musicians now known as “Casa Verdi.” Verdi bequeathed a large part of his fortune to the Casa and called it l’opera mia più bella, “my most beautiful work.” The tombs of Verdi and Giuseppina are in the Casa’s crypt.
The rôle that Verdi’s music did or did not play in the Risorgimento has been a topic of fierce debate in recent years, and I will return to this subject. For now, though: Senso. The opening scene takes place in occupied Venice in 1866, during a performance of Verdi’s Il trovatore at La Fenice. As Manrico launches into his call to arms, “Di quella pira,” Italians in the audience ready leaflets and tricolor posies for a patriotic demonstration. Austrian officers, apparently immune to the charms of Verdi’s music, look on while cries of Viva l’Italia! and “Foreigners out of Venice!” erupt during the ovation for the tenor.
- I would pay real money to see a tenor stride all the way downstage and attack “Di quella pira” with the, well, cojones of Visconti’s Manrico (sung—but not mimed, I think—by Gino Penno).
- Visconti’s treatment of the Risorgimento in Senso is more jaundiced than this opening scene may suggest. Critics on both the right and the left found fault with the film, though Visconti had watered down his original concept, which was to tell “a story of a mismanaged war, fought by a single class, and ending in disaster.” (That said, the many overlapping layers of “staginess” in this scene—including glimpses of players and stagehands in the wings—may be an early clue that something is amiss.)
Visconti’s 1955 staging of La traviata for Maria Callas at La Scala is remembered as a supreme realization of a Verdi opera. He used music of Verdi to great effect in Il gattopardo (1963), as well.
One last thing: Who makes films like this anymore? Allow me to borrow a phrase that calcio fans will recognize: La CGI, mettila nel c… !