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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, September 2010

Several of Walter Felsenstein’s operatic films were just that, films. Even when they were based on a stage production, as in Ritter Blaubart, he deliberately set up an artificial environment only to gradually shift it, and the audience, into a separate reality that gradually took over. Die Hochzeit, however, was an experiment of a different kind. Viewers are never at a loss to understand that they are observing a Felsenstein production on stage, but between the overture, the curtain calls, and the genuine applause for individual arias, the director switches to an empty opera house with all cameras arranged around the performers for maximum effect. This creates the sense of a live occasion, while allowing the freedom of camera movement and the exact positioning of singers that standard “filmed live” operas lack.

Felsenstein further employed lip-syncing to free up his performers from having to worry about vocal clarity and evenness while turning upstage, running around, etc. This is something he used throughout his career, from Fidelio, released in 1956. To the extent that his cast was comfortable with frequent, intensive rehearsals, a constant review of their characters’ motivations, the detailed blocking of their gestures, and the need to match half-sung words to their recorded soundtrack, all went well. Performers who worked with Felsenstein at East Berlin’s Komische Oper were part of a company known worldwide for its exceptional ensemble acting and singing. Thus, at its worst, as in Ruth Schob-Lipka’s fluttery Marcellina, we still get somebody who puts on airs, and interacts appropriately with all the other performers on stage, even if she lacks the formidable presence and sound of Margarethe Bence in the live 1966 Salzburg version under Böhm (Arthaus Musik 107 057). At its best, we have Felsenstein veteran Rudolf Asmus creating a wonderfully pedantic yet focused Bartolo, and Frank Folker’s youthful, innocent-faced Basilio, carefully hiding his slyness as he watches, listens, and learns.

Those performers who took part only in this particular production, and were otherwise unfamiliar with Felsenstein, must have had a harder time of it. Magdalena Falewicz adapts well, playing a youthful Countess with some mettle in her, as does the sexy Ursula Reinhardt-Kiss, despite some gestures that haven’t been practiced to the point of looking natural. Jószef Dene comes off least successfully. He lip-syncs badly, and much of his movement is awkward and lock-jointed. His dark, forceful voice makes for an effective “Non più andrai,” but elsewhere he lacks finesse.

The rest of the cast is strong. Ute Trekel-Burckhardt’s face could never pass for that of a teen but she acts the part well, despite deeper overtones in her voice that make it too mature for Cherubino. Uwe Kreyssig is an excellent Almaviva, his smooth, slightly tight-sounding, lighter baritone and superb acting always in evidence. Of the many Counts I’ve seen on film, he’s visually the best, though the bit of figuration at the end of his aria brings him (as so many others) up short. Werner Enders in turn is memorable as a wonderfully servile and bright-sounding Don Curzio, and Helmut Völker makes much of Antonio. Geza Oberfrank pushes in the modern manner, making less of Rosina’s arias than they probably deserve, but is also firm and energetic—a world apart from his enervated conducting on the 2003 release of György Ránki’s fine satirical opera King Pomade’s New Clothes.

Stage conceptions are always interesting in Felsenstein, and based on a long study of each opera. In the case of Die Hochzeit, the set was left deliberately sketchy. Architectural features such as windows, doors, hanging candelabras, and an occasional piece of furniture are done up in immaculate florid period detail (as are the costumes), while the rest of the stage remains blank, putting the emphasis firmly on the performers. This doesn’t prevent Felsenstein from creating interesting pictures, as in the dramatic downward swirl of the dominating staircase in act I, or the deep stage employed for the wedding celebration and dances of act III. Numerous other personal touches abound: the Count turning away his chair from the celebrating family as Figaro’s parentage is revealed, for instance; and the identical costumes given to Susanna and Rosina, as they emerge to confront Almaviva from either side before the important players in act IV. Good, too, is the way Felsenstein subtly tends on occasion to obscure the line between numbers by bringing in new participants ahead of schedule. Thus Susanna enters at the conclusion of the first section of the Countess’s “Porgi amor,” while the trio of Basilio, Bartolo, and Marcellina appear on the orchestral bars that close the business between the Count and Figaro over Cherubino’s papers. They are poised to take control of events on stage from a solid physical position of strength, rather than rushing in at the last minute.

This production uses German rather than Italian, a custom that still prevails in some German opera houses. As was his custom, Felsenstein rewrote the traditional German recitative and aria texts to clarify plot details, occasionally borrowing a line from Beaumarchais’ original play while attempting otherwise to match da Ponte. (At one point he reverses the order of two arias: “Aprite un po’ quel’occhi” comes after “Deh, vieni, non tardar” to make Figaro’s bitter aria more of a reaction against what he perceives as Susanna’s treachery.) Even a knowledge of the excellent German-language Die Hochzeit recorded in 1964 by Suitner/Dresden Staatskapelle (currently on Berlin Classics 2096) won’t yield a sense of familiarity with the words here.

The sound is problematic. Secco recitatives come across naturally, but those portions of the score with orchestral accompaniment switch to a glassy reverberance that—along with the uniform distance of all performers from the microphones, despite their onstage movements—clearly points to separate studio work. The loss of sound effects when items are dropped or thrown only emphasizes this. This kind of oversized, room-enhanced sound was regrettably popular for a while, and it may have even been appropriate given the intended television audience for the film, which wouldn’t have had big speakers or digital equipment to amplify the effect at the time.

By contrast, I have nothing but praise for Die Hochzeit’s camerawork. Georg Mielke did a splendid job, taking clear advantage of the opportunity to plan every camera angle in advance, and follow every movement on stage. His mix of close-ups, medium and long, establishing shots are all perfectly chosen. The result is a brilliantly filmed production.

The picture format is the standard 4:3 of analog material, with PCM stereo for the music. Subtitles are offered in English, German, French, and Spanish. The extras furnished with most of the Felsenstein Edition sets are of especial interest here. We get a written essay by the director on his conception of the opera (with an insightful analysis of Almaviva and Rosina), some handwritten staging details, and lengthy news/movie trailers done of various Felsenstein operatic productions that were never filmed: Pariser Leben in 1945, Die Fliedermaus in 1947, Die Kluge in 1948, Orpheus in der Unterwelt in 1948, Carmen in 1949, Der Vogelhändler in 1950, Die Zauberflöte in 1954 (with three laurel-crowned boys entering on a Baroque-designed cloud held aloft by vines), Paisello’s Der Barbier von Sevilla in 1960, and Britten’s Ein Sommernachtstraum in 1961. Sadly, no cast lists are provided, except in one instance, on the news footage...but it offers several unforgettable performances, and excellent camerawork. Fans of Felsenstein, needless to add, will be exceptionally pleased.

Parterre Box, November 2009

The joy on my face after opening the plain manila envelope that contained the ArtHaus Musik DVD of Walter Felsenstein’s 1975–6 Die Hochzeit des Figaro is hard to describe. I wanted to love this DVD with all my heart, as I have with the three other Nozze DVDs I own. I did, and then some.

Now, even before you put the first of the two discs into your DVD player, you could start finding problems: “I don’t know any of these singers!” “Singing Mozart in translation?” “The sets look flimsy!” “Lipsynching?”

To which I answer, “Who cares?” This production shows, if not proves, that brilliant direction and artistic commitment to a masterwork of an opera can overcome any problems to create a wildly entertaining and fulfilling experience.

Geza Oberfrank conducts a lively if slightly sloppy overture, and continues the trend throughout. Some of the more intimate moments are given the feeling and time they deserve, while some tempi in the more youthful sections (”Non so più”) are fast enough to cause audible concern in the singers, but the Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin holds together well under Oberfrank’s baton.

In some productions of Nozze the men shine, while in others the ladies take the day. This is clearly a case of the latter. Magdalena Falewicz as the Countess perseveres through the German translation to create beautiful Mozartian lines, with a truly gorgeous “Dove sono” the standout moment in her performance. She is heart-shattering in her sadness, yet still able to be alluring and coy when needed.

One can almost forgive the Count for his lusting after Susanna when she is played so ably by Ursula Reinhardt-Kiss. Her eyes are two huge globes of emotion with the ability to drive you mad with passion, and then in an instant turn to reveal the guilt that racks her heart when she deceptively flirts with the Count during “Crudel, perché finora.” She matches her ability as an actress with beautifully formed phrases and dynamic control, especially in “Deh vieni non tardar.”

Ute Trekel-Burckhardt, while having a rather odd throaty sound in places and the occasional vocal hiccup, is a more than serviceable Cherubino. While I have seen better, she delivers her quips well in German recitative and is rather convincing in her trousers.

The men are actors in the same vein as the ladies, but with slightly less Mozartian capability in their voices. József Dene has a stentorian basso sound that you don’t expect from a Figaro, but lacks the high notes that you do expect. Uwe Kreyssig sings the Count admirably despite a tone that conveys neither nobility nor seduction. He does sing with his heart on his sleeve with the voice he was given, and for this he deserves credit, especially for a gripping “Hai gia vinta.”

The extras alone are worth owning this Die Hochzeit des Figaro (Walter Felsenstein Edition). An interview and original writings by Mr Felsenstein provide wonderful insight and new ideas to characters that we may have thought completely fleshed out before. The depth to which Mr Felsenstein delves into these characters is amazing, and the benefits are luckily preserved on disc for our continued enjoyment.

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