About Christmas TV History

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Gift of the Magi (1996) Opera

Don't avoid this foreign language version--the DVD version includes English subtitles!

Hopefully you've been following along the last several weeks as I've been reminiscing about some of the best and most interesting film and TV adaptations of O.Henry's popular Christmas short story The Gift of the Magi.  So far I've discussed the 1952 film O.Henry's Full House, the 1978 TV movie The Gift of Love, a segment within 1999's Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas, and 1977's Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.   Another outstanding TV adaptation is the 1996 operatic version made for Finnish TV, simply titled The Gift of the Magi.

In this version, the original character names of Jim and Della have been replaced with Joel and Minna.  Doesn't Joel look like a younger Tim Robbins?

This opera version of the Christmas story lifts the emotional drama of the familiar tale to new heights.  Much like the original story, a young couple Joel and Minna are short on money at Christmas time.  In this version, through song, we also learn that Joel is also struggling to pay their rent.  The landlord Mr. Salomon adds tension to the story as he pressures the young couple to pay their rent, stopping Joel outside the apartment to admire his valuable heirloom watch.

The landlord Mr. Salomon clearly wants to acquire Joel's valuable watch.

Another character, a woman of loose morals known in the small village as The Queen of Sheba adds another voice to the unfolding story.  The Queen’s song puts Minna's struggle in context, explaining that a woman’s beauty is her asset and to jeopardize her value is to risk losing her man and her status in society.

Though she's an outcast in the community, the Queen of Sheba (a prostitute) has a worldly understanding of men and society.

Although Minna doesn’t like The Queen, she knows cutting off her hair certainly jeopardizes how her husband may value her especially since they are newly married and the relationship is still young.

Minna gazes in the mirror and considers selling her hair--her only thing of value.

A third character, the wigmaker adds his perspective in song to this timeless story.  At first the wigmaker expresses his contempt for Minna’s faith in the power of love and her sacrifice. But as the wigmaker hears his own cynical remarks about love, he’s moved to follow after Minna to see if her ultimate gift does indeed impress her husband.

The wigmaker doubts the power of love but wants to see for himself what happens when Minna and Joel exchange gifts.

In the end, the townsfolk who have watched all day as these dramatic events unfold now gather and stand outside the young couple’s home to watch through the curtains in the front windows to marvel at the most precious gift exchange.

Knowing full well what's been going on, the villagers all watch the windows to see the couple's reaction.
Interestingly, this TV version also takes the story another step to connect this gift exchange between Minna and Joel with the gifts the three magi offered the baby Jesus.  The scenes in which Joel and Minna exchange gifts are framed with captions that remind viewers of the first Christmas gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It's a thoughtful reminder of the spirit of the season.

The townsfolk watch as Minna's and Joel's precious gifts are offered.  The framing element connects the biblical Christmas story to this tale about giving.

Though the opera's lyrics are in another language, the visuals and the subtitles clearly communicate the beautiful Christmas story and the power of giving one’s only possession. This hour-long opera performance does not take place on stage in a great opera hall but rather is shot on sets--many of them out of doors.  The result includes close-ups and a variety of camera angles which helps create a more intimate viewer connection with the performances.

Like only opera can do, the emotional highs are higher and the lows are a lower in this classic Christmas tale.  Here, Minna prays that her husband doesn't reject her for sacrificing her beauty for him.

This musical adaptation is certainly different from much of the made-for-TV Christmas entertainment--and that's why I'm drawn to it.  Its operatic melodrama also creates a far more emotional story that enriches the familiar Gift of the Magi plot.  It's also interesting to see how this classic story written by the great American author O.Henry is adapted in Finland for international TV audiences.  I think it translates well.

Are you an opera fan?  Have you seen this version of The Gift of the Magi before?  Check out a clip I found on Youtube:

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