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Martin Bernheimer
Opera News, June 2007

No, this is not just another colorful opera-video. This is a pioneering relic of another age. Filmed in 1968, it documents an adaptation of a celebrated production in the repertory of the Hamburg State Opera. In those innocent days, pre-Regietheater, directors still took the libretto at face value, still, for better or worse (possibly worse), respected hoary customs of operatic acting. Convention was perpetuated with conviction.

The credits are complex. Rolf Liebermann, the super-impressario on duty, engaged Joachim Hess to refocus Weber’s beloved, ultra-Teutonic folk-opus for television. The essential source, unmentioned here, dates back to a 1961 staging by Josef Gielen. Erwin Zimmer’s neat costumes were retained. Teo Otto’s painterly sets were apparently discarded in favor of mock-realistic designs by Herbert Kirchhoff.

The manners and mannerisms on display sometimes recall the sappy clichés of silent movies. Many choristers and, yes, some of the principal sopranos, both portraying prim and pious country-maids, model waxy 1960s coiffures. The pleasant peasants telegraph unison cheer or horror, as needed. The hunters exude manly, military lust. There is much eye-popping, much back-slapping, much swaggering and staggering, much mooning and swooning, much climactic clutching of breast and heart. The Wolf’s Glen conjures Halloween-fright images. Close-ups dominate, and everyone lip-synchs conscientiously. Mouths move, chests do not.

Musically there is a good deal to admire. Leopold Ludwig, the seasoned conductor, enforces dramatic verve and lyrical reflection with equal persuasion. Max, the gloomy hero, is Ernst Kozub, best remembered, perhaps, as the tenor who should have sung Siegfried in the Culshaw / Solti Ring recording but couldn’t master the role. He broods darkly, looks portly, sings roughly. Arlene Saunders brings limpid tone and dauntless sweetness to the arching plaints of Agathe. Edith Mathis provides the counterforce of an exceptionally poised and pert Ännchen. Gottlob Frick barks the black utterances of Kaspar with his unique brand of primitive glee. Hans Sotin, basso number two, wraps the deusex-machina utterances of the Hermit in smooth, noble tone. Tom Krause emerges bright and mellifluous as Prince Ottokar. Franz Grundlheber, then at the beginning of his career, contributes a blustery but strong-sounding Kilian, Toni Blankenheim a sympathetic but weak-sounding Cuno. Bernhard Minetti mimes the diabolical curses of Samiel with smirking restraint.

So much for a classically quaint depiction of life and love in storybook Bohemia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Not a bull’s-eye perhaps, but a fascinating shot.

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