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Jennifer Melick
Opera News, January 2011

At the opening of Jan Schmidt-Garre’s hybrid documentary/performance film, Chopin scholars and singers stroll the grounds at George Sand’s estate in Nohant, France, looking a bit like tourists. They head into the house where Chopin spent summers and autumns with Sand from 1838 to 1846; the camera follows the guests into a dining room where we see place cards laid at a table for guests such as Gustave Flaubert and “Tourguenieff” (Turgenev), as well as a Pleyel piano Sand owned from the same period.

The point of Chopin at the Opera becomes clear only gradually. Schmidt-Garre, to his credit, veers away from straight biography, avoiding the over-mined George Sand-Chopin territory, instead mixing intense discussion of Chopin’s music with rehearsals and performances in the Nohant house. It’s like being invited to observe a weekend retreat with people who love Chopin more than anything else in the world. In one memorable scene, the group is seated at a table—wearing thick sweaters and turtlenecks at the apparently unheated house—leaning in to hear a scratchy 1905 recording of Adelina Patti singing a phrase from Bellini’s La Sonnambula; when she hits one particular trill that’s like a long Chopin trill, their faces light up. One of the commentators will reference a fact, such as a handwritten notation on a sheet of Chopin’s music in Warsaw stating that “the wrist = the breath in vocal music,” and that Chopin’s students all remarked on the suppleness of his body when he played. Then, the camera cuts to pianist Roland Pöntinen performing a mazurka, with close-ups of his wrists. The camera cuts again to a new piano-vocal arrangement of the same mazurka, with the singer’s breaths taking the place of comparable spots in the piano line.

Though Chopin never wrote an opera himself, the genre had a huge influence on his style, accelerating with his arrival in Paris in 1830. There’s a discussion of Chopin’s Etude No. 7 in C-sharp minor, possibly an homage to Bellini, who died in 1835. The bel canto influence is covered at length, with explanations that the novel parts of Chopin’s piano style—its long, accurately constructed cantilena—had long been cultivated in opera. There are numerous performance excerpts of the nocturnes, mazurkas and etudes, some in original form, some of the mazurkas in vocal arrangements by Pauline Viardot, who knew Chopin and George Sand well.

Near the end of the film, theater director Georg-Albrecht Eckle remarks that Chopin wrote “absolute” music—music that tells no stories, music that has “nothing to say”—and that this is the greatness of his work. It is a provocative statement; certainly it is true that his expressive effect is so clear that words can seem extraneous. Among the things you may find yourself thinking about after watching this film are the Frenchness of Chopin’s melodic line—its unevenness that is so similar to spoken French; that trills and ornaments in Chopin’s music are inseparable from the melody; that Chopin, a master improviser, never played a piece the same way twice; that one can love a voice more than a person, and that Chopin may have been one of these people.

The bonus recital material includes several of Viardot’s mazurka arrangements—“Separation” (Op. 24 No. 1), “La Beauté” (Op. 67 No. 1), “Plainte d’amour” (Op. 6 No. 1) and “L’Oiselet” (Op. 68 No. 2). The standout among the singers is German soprano Christiane Libor, who seems in her unforced lyric control and in the melancholy-tinged sweetness of her timbre to be channeling Chopin. There are also several (uncredited) new arrangements, including a trio for contralto, cello and piano, based on Etude Op. 25 No. 7. No printed booklet is included, so viewers who wish to read original texts or translations of the Viardot arrangements will have to seek them out on their own.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, January 2011

You might think that the idea of a group of musicians, scholars, and philosophers gathering around to explore the subject of Bellini’s impact on Chopin’s music, and more broadly the impact of operatic singing on Chopin, would make for a dull hour on film. You would be wrong. This is a video that will interest and engage anyone who loves piano playing, Chopin, or bel canto opera. The mixture of talk and performance is perfect, and the performers include the wonderful Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova and Swedish pianist Roland Pöntinen, which assures a high level of music-making.

The film is the condensation of a full week spent by Chopin specialists at Nohant, the home of George Sand, where Chopin wrote much of his later music. Musicians and scholars sit around the living room, the garden, or the dining table and explore the relationship between operatic singing in general, and Bellini in particular, and Chopin’s music. One clear goal of the exploration is to learn more about Chopin performance style, and in particular the integration of ornaments into the melodic line in such a way that they are not “extras,” but integral parts of that melodic line.

The discussions are mostly in English, but there are subtitles available for moments when they are not—and the titles are also provided for vocal numbers in the film itself (not, as you will learn, the bonus recital). Kasarova’s singing of Bellini would be reason enough to own this DVD, and so would the pianism of Pöntinen—at once firmly shaped and exquisitely supple. In addition to the discussion and music-making in the one-hour documentary, there is a bonus of 42 minutes duration, featuring straight performances of music by Chopin, and settings of Chopin material for voice and piano by Pauline Viardot. Pöntinen is the pianist in the bonus, along with Christiane Libor (soprano), Katerina Hebelkova (alto), and Dávid Adorján (cellist). This recital includes Chopin’s Berceuse, two mazurkas, and the op. 25/7 etude, along with a lovely arrangement of that etude for alto, cello, and piano. The singers also contribute a group of songs by Pauline Viardot that are transcriptions of piano pieces by Chopin. There are no titles available for the song texts, but you are given the title of each song and the Chopin work on which it is based.

If the music of Chopin has any meaning for you at all it is hard to imagine you finding this anything other than fascinating. The conversation is intelligent and focused; the direction keeps everything moving along without cutting thought streams short. Watching it made me think about Chopin, and Chopin performances, with new insight. Any film that provides information and entertainment in equal doses deserves nothing but praise.

Greg Hettmansberger
Dane101, December 2010

The new Arthaus Musik DVD “Chopin at the Opera.” Director Jan Schmidt-Garre has taken a unique and fabulously successful approach that gives us a real feel for a critical portion of Chopin’s life and insight to one of the most significant aspects of his genius. When I learned, as all music students do, that Chopin’s piano style was greatly influenced by the operatic style of Bellini and Donizetti, I didn’t fully grasp it: the bel canto operas of Italians often bored me to tears, while I could stay awake all night listening to Chopin’s nocturnes. But Schmidt-Garre led a group of musicians and musicologists to George Sand’s castle at Nohant, and on the grounds where Chopin lived and loved and wrote much from 1839–46, they gradually illuminate this essential truth in his music. With many excerpts from Chopin’s works, the superb bonus feature is a recital that includes arrangements of Chopin that incorporate voice as well. It is rare to encounter a film that provides as much new stimulation into music as well known as this one does.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, September 2010

German filmmaker Jan Schmidt-Garre improvises a documentary on how the style of Chopin’s music was directly influenced by bel canto opera with a team of musicians and musicologists. They are set loose in the country house of Chopin’s lover George Sand to talk, debate and make music. These loose, slow-moving 60 minutes carry a single message: you cannot understand the music of Chopin—its melodies, phrasings and structure—without understanding the world of Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century. There are 40-plus bonus minutes of an intimate concert in Sand’s private theatre.

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