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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, September 2010

Opera director Walter Felsenstein’s motion pictures can be divided into two categories: films of stage productions and filmed productions. The latter are by far the more interesting, providing access as they do to the full resources of the cinematic imagination, unbounded by limitations of a fixed physical location. Fidelio (1956), The Cunning Little Vixen (1965), Otello (1969), The Tales of Hoffmann (1970), and Bluebeard (1973) all display both a sophisticated understanding of the medium and brilliant insight into each specific opera.

Taken solely as a production and ensemble effort, the director’s Otello is the best I’ve seen. Felsenstein’s handling of large and disparate groups of people, especially in the scene leading up to the arrival of the Venetian ambassador’s party, is impressive in its detail and visual depth. The depiction of the storm sequence exclusively through the effect of rain and wind on the Cypriots, without any body of water in sight, is masterly; there are no out-of-character supers, or moments when people huddle around waiting for their next cue. The costumes and handsome sets strike the perfect balance between visual overload and that minimalism, so popular today, that leaves the performers hanging in midair without any cultural backdrop.

The camerawork, too, is exemplary. I would single out one sequence in particular for praise: the act III concertato. Set off from the rest of the work by its freeze on time while several people declaim their thoughts, Felsenstein casts Desdemona’s initial comments as an internal, visually unspoken dialogue, then fades to full-face images against a black background for each successive character’s entry. There are two exceptions: Otello and Lodovico, where Iago remains framed in soft focus back and slightly to one side, as he pours advice into the ears of those he controls. All of this is just the kind of thing you can’t do on stage, and works so well on film when it’s in the hands of a master.

On to the individual performances. Hanns Nocker, a high tenor with a gleaming, flexible voice, broad range, and great sensitivity, never did get the recognition he deserved outside his native East Germany, and a few tours in Stockholm and Moscow. He sings a very fine Otello, emphasizing the tumult in a heart that loves so fully it cannot imagine even its object loves as well. His acting in a way reverses his performance in The Tales of Hoffmann, where his was the most understated of performances in a gallery of feverishly parodied figures. Here, it is Otello who, after act I, shows his anguish in a series of movements and gestures that seem almost too big for the screen.

Christa Noack’s voice has a slight beat, and is not ideally lyrical—still, she looks good for the part, and acts well. Vladimir Bauer is close to ideal as an actor’s Iago, never going over the top, but making much of the character’s combination of malice and dissimulation. His voice is nothing special one way or the other, but he uses it with a fidelity to the score that I’ve rarely heard outside of Tibbett and Gobbi. Kurt Masur provides a tense, well-paced, supportive reading, in a pre-Muti fashion that follows the indicated tempos.

I have two reservations. The first refers to a tradition common to many European films of the period, in which all extraneous sound is eliminated from musical numbers. This looks odd during the opening scene, when we can see just how well Felsenstein set up the windblown rain, and determined just how far each chorus member would lose his footing to simulate reality. So much is understandable. Less so is Felsenstein’s repeated use of over-expressive chorus shots in the fire chorus and the concertato. It’s straight out of the silent era he grew up in, when such images were part of the rich visual grammar of filmmaking, useful to both build suspense and punctuate actions. Their presence at this late date feels artificial.

As in most of these releases of the Felsenstein Edition, we are given several extras. The best is a radio interview in 1959, at the time of the original production of his Otello, complete with quotes both from the traditional German translation then in use by Max Kalbeck, and the director’s own, far more faithful version. There is also a radio interview on the eve of this film, a picture gallery with introductions from the shooting script, and a commentary by the director’s son, Christoph, on the video and audio restoration. It concentrates on this opera and The Cunning Little Vixen with footage demonstrating the excellent clean-up that was done. Though initially recorded in mono, the analog sound is in PCM stereo—really, closer to binaural—and the picture format is 4:3.

There’s much more that could be said about Felsenstein’s conception of the opera and its characters, some of which is explained in the accompanying notes, all of which can be seen subtly permeating the film itself. Suffice to say that if you can make allowances for the occasional histrionics and the “wrong language” production, this Otello remains as potent today as it was when it was first released. Highly recommended.

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