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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, July 2010

Toward the end of his life, the renowned stage director Walter Felsenstein commented that “the other films were basically stage performances adapted and arranged for the cinema. They were intended to document … productions at the Komische Oper. …My only real music film was Fidelio.” The rose-tinted camera lens of time had much to do with this statement, as the filming of Fidelio gave Felsenstein less control in some important respects than any of the six operas he was to subsequently film, save possibly Don Giovanni.

The project took wing in a post-World War II Austria, its territorial and administrative control divided among the four primary Allies. The Soviets ran the Rosenhügel studios that commissioned this Fidelio, leading to numerous textual and musical changes after repeated consultations with the military censors. When it appeared that approval was on the way and contracts would be signed, a new general director for the studio was appointed, leading to further negotiations over the film’s content and costs. Few documents survive of what was an interminable exchange, lasting several years; nor do we know why discussions with numerous international artists that included Solti, Kondrashin, Mödl, and Windgassen broke down.

Then the 1955 Austrian State Treaty was signed, and the Rosenhügel studios became the Akkord-Film Ltd. studios of Austria, with enormous debts accrued under their Soviet administrators and no funds to finish Fidelio’s dubbing, complete complex editing sequences, or reshoot the final scene. Further major musical cuts were made in material already shot, including the Leonore-Marzelline-Rocco trio, the Marzelline-Jaquino duet, Rocco’s “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben,” and Leonore’s “Wer du auch sei’st,” as well as the shortening of various arias and portions of dialogue. In early 1956 the fate of the film was so doubtful that Felsenstein wrote that nobody knew whether Fidelio would ever be completed, but eventually the money was found. (Not for everything, however. A replacement for the long, technically flawed crane shot in the finale must have been on Felsenstein’s list, for example, but didn’t make it onto that of Akkord-Film Ltd.’s bookkeepers.)

The film has repeatedly been called experimental, most recently in the liner notes to this release (“A totally new experiment in every respect”). Bluntly put, it isn’t. If anything, this Fidelio is deliberately and defiantly old-fashioned, as Felsenstein employs a film vocabulary enriched by a reliance on pre-sound visual effects. The frequent dissolves that were common in the work of Griffith, Pabst, Dupont, and others before the coming of sound make sense in context, since the director must have realized the sung portions of the opera were almost entirely “silent,” anyway: that is, the internalized thoughts and emotions of individuals, frozen in time.

It was a clever idea to combine these silent-film solutions with portions of Fidelio, and for the most part, they succeed. Felsenstein got very good visual actors for all parts in the film, and worked with them to develop an unusual standard of ensemble intensity that later became the norm at East Berlin’s Komische Oper. The act I quartet (“Mir ist so wunderbar”) is revelatory as the camera tracks slowly to each person in turn, their facial features and body gestures silently seconding their thoughts as expressed through text and music. At other times, of course, when the characters communicate directly with one another, lines are openly sung, or a mix of techniques is applied, as when Rocco sings openly in the act II dungeon scene while Florestan’s thoughts are sung in his mind, as he observes Fidelio/Leonore. Another technique, the lengthy tracking shot, is deployed to great effect while following the starved prisoners through the landscape, as they are given their first taste of sunlight, earth, and clean air in a long time. Felsenstein and his colleagues surely learned from the many post-war documentaries how to make it all look so real that the viewer seems almost an invader upon something holy and private.

The use of multiple-exposure dissolves will no doubt prove the most difficult-to-swallow element in the film, simply because they were finally abandoned even by most individualistic auteurs during the 1950s. They don’t always work well in context. Taking the focus off the very fine visual Pizarro of Hannes Schiel as he sings “Ha, welch ein Augenblick!” in appropriately stormy weather, to show his face silhouetted over lightning-strewn skies, shuddering wheat fields, and upturned trees relieves tension, rather than reinforcing it. On the other hand, Florestan’s vision of a young, summer-dressed Leonore walking in slow motion toward him—his manacled, tattered arms seem to reach upwards towards her into the dream at first, then without manacles, dressed in a youthful nobleman’s coat as he is pulled next to her, and led off—seems appropriate to me, especially when used in counterpoint against the ecstatic, hallucinatory quality of the music.

Felsenstein did not have the benefit in this Fidelio of working with a team he’d known well over the years, so he cast multiple performers for a few of the roles. Schiel’s vicious predator of a Pizarro has been mentioned, with Heinz Rehfuss an excellent choice for the singing part. While Alfred Pöll provided a noble if abbreviated Don Fernando, Erwin Gross did the visual honors. Curiously, the physical and sung Rocco were supplied by Georg Wieter, but another actor, Wolfgang Hebenstreit, furnished the spoken lines. The voices and physical acting of the First and Second Prisoners also employed different sets of performers. Leonore evidently gave the director the most problems. In the end, he relied upon three performers: Claude Nollier, whose lean, angular face and restrained acting made a powerful visual effect; Grete Zimmer for the spoken part; and Magda László for the singing, which she manages well. Most of the dubbing is handled seamlessly.

There are many other fine things in Felsenstein’s work, such as the final, victorious pages of the Fidelio Overture used ironically to herald Pizarro’s seemingly triumphant return to his keep; the way ordinary citizens scatter into small groups, each with its own visually clear series of motivations and actions, upon that arrival; and the gloomy trip down into the deepest, hidden cell where Florestan is kept. Fans of the opera will no doubt regret the loss of much fine music, but I can think of no other production of Fidelio that captures as much of its raw spirit.

Sound is supplied in PCM stereo, though there is some moderate loss of the upper frequencies. The picture format is 4:3, with deterioration of the original black-and-white stock evinced at times in overly contrasted and occasionally unevenly lit sequences. For the most part there is great definition to the screen image, however. Subtitles are provided in English, German, French, and Spanish. Curiously, this is the only one of the seven reissues in the Felsenstein Edition thus far that lacks any special features. It would have been interesting to hear or at least read the director’s thoughts on his earliest filmed work, as well as the thoughts of others.

That aside, strongly recommended. If Fidelio moves you as an expression of human empathy, you really should see this.

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