14 Jan 2009
Walter Felsenstein Edition
Some of the more ingenious opera productions of the twentieth century are the work of Walter Felsenstein, who renowned internationally for his efforts in the genre.
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Some of the more ingenious opera productions of the twentieth century are the work of Walter Felsenstein, who renowned internationally for his efforts in the genre.
His legacy includes opera films, which have just been restored and released as a set, which allows Felsenstein’s work to be seen afresh. His personal touches, from broad concepts to subtle details, reveal a sensitivity to opera as an art form, as well as the nature of specific works.
Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975) was the founder and, for years, director or the Komische Oper Berlin, one of the premiere ensembles of the former East Berlin. In his long career he was responsible for almost 200 opera productions and also left a legacy of seven opera films, which are now available on DVD in a single set. From his first opera film, a feature release of Beethoven’s Fidelio from 1956 to his last effort in this genre, a film of a staged version of Mozart’s Die Hochzeit des Figaro, the seven works serve as testimony of Felsenstein’s craft and set him alongside such outstanding directors of opera on film as Rolf Liebermann. (Liebermann’s tenure with the Hamburg Opera, from 1959 to 1973, seem to parallel Felsenstein’s years with the Komische Oper in Berlin.) With the release of this set of all the operas, including other documentary footage, the Estate of Walter Felsenstein makes the director’s efforts available to a wide audience.
Felsenstein did not treat each opera the same way, but approached each one individually. He used, for example, the medium of the feature film for Fidelio and arrived at a visual and dramatic interpretation of the work that differs from some of the recent DVDs of stage productions of the opera. Using techniques reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein in Alexander Nevsky and, to a degree, that of his contemporary Vera Stroyeva whose film of Boris Godunov was released around the same time, Felsenstein freely used visual images and music to convey the sense of the text, as occurs in Marzellina’s first-act aria. Such imagery is important to connoting mood at the climax of the opera, where the forces of nature play a role in Felsenstein’s conception of the work, with storm and sunshine provide one level of interpretation. Moving away from the opposition of darkness and light, Felsenstein used of nighttime scenery for the celebration of Leonore’s reunion with Florestan, with candle-lit crowd scenes and a bonfire going a bit beyond the sometimes simpler depictions of the festivities that occur when the opera is presented on stage. The medium of film also allowed Felsenstein to make the first-act march of the prisoners into light a more important moment in the work, as he almost loses the previously confined men the garden near the citadel to reflect their longing for the light of day and the need to be in free air. This staging makes Pizarro’s concern for reining in the prisoners more understandable then when this scene receives a more prosaic treatment in the foursquare space of a conventional opera stage.
Other touches are worth seeing, such as the moment Leonore (as Fidelio) looks into a mirror and sees beyond her disguise to reveal her feminine image, an element which is inferred in the text, but never reveal to theater audiences until climactic scene in Florestan’s cell. This cinematic trick is tantamount to a musical quotation, which can carry a great deal of meaning within a relatively short time. These and other aspects of the production demonstrate Felsenstein’s deep knowledge of opera, which was part of his professional life since the 1930s. After all, Felsenstein had been involved with productions at the Salzburg Festival and elsewhere in Europe, which gave him the background to support his novel effort at making a film of the opera Fidelio.
As to the musical content of the film, the nature of the singers involved bears attention. The roles of Marzellina and Fidelio in this production involve women with similar voice types, and this differs from the modern preference for more distinctive voice types. The full-voiced Florestan of Richard Holm is a welcome sound, which works well in conveying the musical line. With Pizzaro, the bass-baritone timbre of Heinz Rehfuß [acted by Hannes Schiel] brings a sinister note to the role, which is underscored by his physical presence - while menacing, it is by no means a caricature of the stage villain. His voice is similar to that of Rocco, rather than the sometimes darker voice type that has since come to be part of modern productions.
Some similar comparisons may be made with Felsenstein’s film of Don Giovanni, which dates from 1966, a decade after Fidelio. This is a filmed opera, rather than a feature film based on the opera, and reflects a particular staging of Mozart’s opera. Despite the colorful locations that are found in the libretto of this opera, Felsenstein chose to use a more conventional stage production of Don Giovanni for this film. Even within such an artistic self-restriction, Felsenstein brought his own genius to the result in a film that is as strong dramatically as it is musically. The acting itself stands apart from various other stagings of the opera because of the director’s emphasis on the interactions between characters that often suggest the intimacy of a drama. Through his efforts in filming this opera, Felsenstein does not minimize music in this film but rather intensifies it. The opening scene is quite intense because it is suggests that work is opening in the middle of action already set in motion, and as such the audience must determine what has happened in order to understanding what is occurring on stage. With the interaction between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore, the fight starts as something in which the Don has engaged before, and he is noticeably surprised when his parry wounds the older man fatally. The shots of Don Giovanni’s facial expression are particularly effective and, at a time when opera on film most often trained cameras toward a stage, reveal the multiple cameras Felsenstein used to create his finely honed result.
Even though it involved the traditional stage, Felsenstein used the camera to take the audience beyond the footlights through the angles and viewpoints that move inside the work. In the mid- 1960s, when Felsenstein made this film, televised opera usually involved long shots of the stage, and if the close-ups occurred, they sometimes shows imperfections in the faces of the singer. This is not the case in this effort, which resembles more a feature film. In the title role, György Melis offers a convincing characterization through his singing and acting, which has a parallel in the casting of Anny Schlemm in the role of Donna Elvira. As with other successful productions of this opera, those two principals work well together, but they are not alone, as the ensembles help to shape Felsenstein’s conception of Don Giovanni Through the lens, he made this work come alive to reveal the various personal relationships at the core of the quintessential tragicomedy by Mozart.
While these two films, among several others, are in black and white, Felsenstein also used color for several operas. Verdi’s Othello, which he released in 1969, just a few years after Don Giovanni, is characterized by the bold colors that help to define the work. Filmed on a studio stage, like Don Giovanni, Othello benefits from multiple camera that allow for a variety of camera angles. Felsenstein created a powerful effect in the opening scene of Othello, which include some well-placed close-ups that bring out the tension in the scene not only through their facial expressions, but because they delay the entrance of the title character. In Felsenstein’s hand, the interplay between Iago and Rodrigo is also more intense because the audience is not viewing their exchange a distance from the stage. Rather, the visual proximity underscores the drama and, as a result, intensifies the music. This production is reminiscent of a quite intense presentation of Verdi’s Macbeth a decade later at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which brought out the interplay between the principals in a similar way. Yet Felsenstein’s film of Othello benefits from the perspective of the camera that guides the viewer into the director’s vision of the work.
In a similar way the latest opera in the set, the one of Mozart’s Hochzeit des Figaro, shows Felsenstein making the most of the stage in a production which benefits from a sensitive combination of traditional and post-modern elements. As with other operas, like Don Giovanni, Felsenstein shows the conductor and the orchestra in the pit for Die Hochzeit des Figaro, and this reminds the viewer of the live quality of the film. This lens takes the viewer closer into a nicely detailed production that could not be appreciated as well from the distance of a seat in the audience. Yet as the production moves along, the somewhat elaborate sets open up to a more representational set. Where Susanna and Figaro’s opening scene was set in an appointed room, the walls open us in later scenes, to allow the actors to move more freely on the stage, as occurs in the same act, when Cherubino hides in Susanna’s room. Yet in the second act, Felsenstein used a single wall to suggest the larger structure in which the performers interact, and this effect, while subtle, also allows the score to emerge clearly and serve to propel the drama.
Such an effect is wholly in Felsenstein’s aesthetic. The comments of Jens Neubert, quoted in the booklet that accompanies the DVD set, are particularly apt: “In his opera films Walter Felsenstein aimed to establish singing and the singing performer as a natural phenomenon who should never appear strange in the eyes of the audience. . . . With his opera films he intended to create a new popular genre by suing the experimental tools of his time in his theatrical-interpretation.” In many ways Felsenstein succeeded in ways that are still finding their way into modern broadcasts of opera. The use of the camera on stage is an element that Felsenstein used to bring the audience into the drama, and it introduces a sense of intimacy that is not always possible on stage, even though it is implicit in the score. The camera angles that Felsenstein used made the exchanges between the characters realistic without introducing details not in the score, which occur in some of the re-thought conceptions of opera that have been produced in recent decades. In this sense Felsenstein deserves attention for the way he enlivened as familiar a work as Don Giovanni without resorting to artifice, and those unfamiliar with his work might want to start with this opera.
One of the surprising films in this set is Felsenstein’s film of Janácek’s Cunning Little Vixen, which dates from 1965. Through his use of oversized sets, including some impressively enormous plants, he created images that fit the work aptly. More than that, the acting conveys the animal world well, with the title character embodying the characteristics of the fox, yet sometimes moving into the human world, as found in the close-ups of her face and eyes. Possible only in film, the images sometimes blur from the costumed animal characters to human ones, with smooth visual transformations fitting the transitions in the score. A difficult opera to find on DVD, this black-and-white production from the mid-1960s is engaging and shows Felsenstein at one of his most imagination moments.
In a similar way, the charming production of Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann in German as Die Erzählungen von Hoffmann, which was released in 1970 is an inspired conception of the opera. Within the framework that Felsenstein conceived for this production, the work holds together well, not only through his characterization of Niklaus, but through the vivid images that are part of each scene. The meticulously decorated sets used in this opera well in this film, which is restored well and reflects the details quite clearly. The tenor Hanns Nocker who plays Hoffmann stands out for the ease with which he has projected his character and the corresponding musical line.
Part of Felsenstein’s success also resides in his use of the vernacular, with German as the language of each of the films. Those familiar with Italian for Mozart’s Da-Ponte operas and Verdi’s Othello and French for Offenbach, especially the well-known Contes d’Hoffmann, may find this initially jarring, but each cast delivers the text facilely. In some ways the sung translation of The Cunning Little Vixen makes the work more accessible for those who may be more familiar with German than Czech. Nevertheless, the DVDs include subtitles for each work in English, French, Spanish, and, of course, German.
In presenting these seven films in this convenient set, the Felsenstein Archive also makes available background material and some historic footage. The second disc of Othello includes a presentation of Felsenstein’s working notes, as well as an interview with the director. With Ritter Blaubart, the materials move logically from text to graphics and, eventually, to footages of a rehearsal of the staged version of that work. Materials like these are found throughout the set, and also include some historic films from Pariser-Leben (1945); Die Fledermaus (1947); Die Kluge (1948); Orpheus in der Unterwelt (1948); and Carmen (1949). Such materials augment the solid information found in the detailed booklets that are included with each film.
This set not only preserves the groundbreaking work of Walter Felsenstein in filming opera, but also makes it available dynamically through the medium of DVD. The restoration involved with the creation of this set, an element documented in the accompanying materials, contributes to the overall effect. With the availability of this set, those interested in opera film have a resource that is essential to understand the technical and artistic accomplishments of one of its more creative artists. Arthaus has done a fine service to opera by making these films available a such of such fine quality and thoughtful presentation.
James L. Zychowicz