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The Walter Felsenstein DVD Edition

A much welcome contribution from the Munich based music critic Klaus J. Kalchschmid who is otherwise busy writing for--among other publications--Süddeutsche, Die Welt, RheinPfalz, and

available at Amazon Walter Felsenstein Edition, 8 DVDs, ArthausMusik
The pleasure and insight gained from the seven opera films of Walter Felsenstein, the legendary founder and Intendant of the Komische Opera Berlin from 1950 to 1976, differs from case to case. All films, restored and published in a box with additional, insightful video and audio material, are interesting documents of theater history. At the same time it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that stage productions (and their screen adaptations) can age a bit more quickly than do other forms of art.

Nevertheless, even sixty years after its making, Felsenstein’s black and white, rather liberal adaptation of Fidelio—filmed outdoors, ‘on location’—still impresses. His meddling with the script (his first spoken scene introduces Don Pizarro as the people’s menace, for example) adds intensity and authenticity of feelings, if anything. It’s the only among the films that wasn’t connected to a staged version, and it was not made for the East-German Television Broadcasting Service, but in Vienna. The acceptable mono sound and picture quality (not too far from watching F.W. Murnau) doesn’t get in the way at all, the spoken text—not particularly useful though that may be to a non-German speaking audience—is delivered in theater-, not opera quality.

Verdi’s Othello (in German, of course) works well, too, with its explicit depiction of a jealousy drama that necessarily ends in catastrophe. From 1969 and in color, it’s a happy chimera of stage production and film, with the orchestra in good form under Kurt Masur. Hanns Nocker is, as in the 1963 production (filmed a decade later) of Blaubart (Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue) the protagonist. Bluebeard, which was an unlikely, world-wide, success for the Komische Oper, ambles through several fussy scenes (that need to be understood as intentionally ironic to be appreciated—a predecessor of ‘camp’) before reaching the truly grand entrance of the title role in his wildly ostentatious renaissance costume. The other performers reward with equally quirky, impressively intensive, and sometimes over the top satirical scenes. Felsenstein takes the work seriously; a social critique veiled with much humor and parody. Hoffmanns Erzählungen (Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, 1970) similarly benefits from a fine adaptation for the screen that consoles for the few antiquated, if not musty, scenes.

Leoš Janáček’s Das schlaue Füchslein (“The cunning little Vixen”) was a model-staging of Felsenstein and rightly lauded. Too bad that the 1956 black and white film version suffers from less than ideal sound and picture quality; Vaclav Neumann’s conducting would come across better without the distortions. And yet, the enchanting poetry and perfectly bearable lightness of this performance—quite like Max Reinhart’s 1938 Midsummernight’s Dream—invariably casts its spell on the viewer. Thanks to the camera perspective and switching angles that negate our sense of proportions, the actors (kids) who play the insects look well-nigh realistic. And that was, after all, the conviction and maxim of Felsenstein which gave his style—romantic realism—its name. The whole thing reminds of Ladislas Starevich’s L’horloge magique ou La petite fille qui volait être princesse, but with real people. Ideally suited to entertain old and young alike.

Don Giovanni and Figaro—the former from 1966, filmed in the theater, partially underexposed and characterized by the print’s soggy black/white, the latter from 1976, made shortly after Felsenstein had died, filmed in color and splendid quality—ask for more patience of the viewer. Intense performances can’t caché the pointedly aged aesthetic of these two operas; and even Germans are no longer comfortable listening to either in German instead of Italian. Subtitles in English, German, French, and Spanish are provided throughout, including the Bonus material.

All seven films and the extensive additional material (watch it, where available, before the respective opera) contained on altogether 12 CDs, show the unbending will with which Felsenstein pursued theatrical truth. That was a rare, most fortunate occasion on the opera (or film-) stage then, and it remains so today.

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