Renowned, reclusive and hot-tempered, Teresa Stratas has shrouded herself in an eerie aura. The brilliant, eccentric soprano has trekked through the Himalayas and worked in the hellholes of Calcutta with Mother Teresa. She knocked Paris on its ear in the world premiere of Alban Berg’s complete Lulu, the most damned vixen in operatic literature. Harry Rasky’s 90-minute documentary, StrataSphere, delivers an almost hypnotic portrait of this seemingly imploding star. Haggard eyes limned with tears, she talks tirelessly of the grinding poverty of her Greek immigrant upbringing in a ramshackle Toronto neighborhood. Her grasp of the poignant is so well manicured that the viewer feels churlish to observe that she is hardly the only singer to start off dirt poor.
Rasky perhaps encourages these reminiscences too much but when he draws out the musician in Stratas—rehearsing La Bohème with Franco Zeffirelli or vocalizing backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—his documentary grows crisp and professional. The creepy sinews of Salome, Richard Strauss’s opera of the doomed princess of Judea, form a leitmotiv that recurs even when Stratas quietly recalls her childhood flirtations with suicide or darkly muses that “death is the ultimate freedom.” That three of her most dramatically shattering roles are the consumptive Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, the murdered temptress Salome and Lulu, slashed in a garret by Jack the Ripper, is no surprise.
Death is indeed the constant spectre in this documentary. Its presence can be attributed not to any Svengali-like machinations on Rasky’s part but to Stratas herself. Whether wringing her expressively boned hands or raking them through her reddened, limp hair, she seems to be rehearsing an unwritten score about her own, unfinished life. It is a welcome relief when Rasky allows Stratas to talk about her artistry. She gives a brief master class by singing a phrase from Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny with four different inflections and intentions. This lesson gives a glimpse, too, of a personality with as many layers as Napoleon’s, who can render each version with equal command and beauty. At the end of Rasky’s film, she displays a gift given her by a fretful admirer, a clown figure in a birdcage. StrataSphere begins to show us why this caged bird sings. —B. M.
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