Dated, Dusty and a Bit Tacky, but Still Keep­ers

Ger­man Opera Films From the ’60s & ’70s Of­fer Rare Glimpses Of Forgotten Stars

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Joe Banno

For some years now, classical la­bels have been reap­ing prof­its from old record­ings reis­sued on shiny new CDs. And re­cently those com­pa­nies have been raid­ing the vaults for clas­sic per­for­mances pre­served on film and re­leas­ing them on DVD, re­sult­ing in an abun­dance of un­ex­pected gems.

Arthaus Musik’s new se­ries of DVDs fea­tures Ger­man-lan­guage opera films from the 1960s and ’ 70s, which were adapted from Ham­burg State Opera pro­duc­tions and shot in color on sound­stages for broad­cast on Ger­man television un­der the di­rec­tion of Joachim Hess. With their poufy ’ 60s hair­dos, polyester knock­offs of pe­riod cos­tumes and geri­atric cast­ing of the in­genue roles, th­ese films are de­cid­edly prod­ucts of their era. But given the sig­nif­i­cant pluses of con­vinc­ing lip-sync­ing, fluid cam­era work and a grat­i­fy­ingly nat­u­ral­is­tic approach to the act­ing, th­ese DVDs of­fer an en­ter­tain­ing way to catch glimpses of singers who left few other vis­ual records of their art.

The 1970 pro­duc­tion of Wag­ner’s “Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg” (Arthaus 101 273) pretty much sums up the joys and short­falls of the se­ries. This is a well-sung per­for­mance, con­ducted with a lived-in feel­ing for Wag­ne­r­ian lyri­cism by the rel­a­tively un­sung Leopold Lud­wig. As with the other ti­tles, the sets (a jum­ble of tra­di­tional re­al­ism and ab­stract modernism) are de­lib­er­ately stagy in look, but — to­gether with the paintby-num­bers me­dieval cos­tumes — cre­ate de­cent enough at­mos­phere.

With most of the prin­ci­pals push­ing re­tire­ment, there’s as much fas­ci­na­tion count­ing crow’s-feet and in­spect­ing wig seams as there is in watch­ing the per­for­mances. But the act­ing is en­gag­ing and com­mit­ted, nearly across the board — not least in Toni Blanken­heim’s gen­uinely funny study of Beckmesser’s im­po­tent con­niv­ing, and in Ger­hard Unger’s sweet-toned and ge­nial per­for­mance as the cob­bler’s ap­pren­tice, David. But as the opera’s hero, Wal­ter von Stolz­ing, Richard Cas­silly is a con­sid­er­able li­a­bili- ty. His beefy tenor was more at­trac­tive at this point in his ca­reer than the ade­noidal bray it would later be­come. But he hec­tors rather than woos, and his thug­gish, un­smil­ing pres­ence and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized stare cre­ate a sin­gu­larly in­ap­pro­pri­ate sense of men­ace: This young knight looks as likely to stran­gle his beloved Eva in her sleep as to win her in a song con­test.

It takes a lot to coun­ter­bal­ance Cas­silly’s creepi­ness, but Gior­gio Tozzi’s su­perb per­for­mance as cob­bler-cum-philoso­pher Hans Sachs does so re­mark­ably well. On pa­per, Tozzi, with his smil­ing eyes and Mediter­ranean sun­ni­ness, seems a per­verse choice for this sub­tlest and most echt-Ger­man of Wag­ner’s great bass-bari­tone roles. His rep­u­ta­tion, af­ter all, was based al­most wholly on work in main­stream Ital­ian reper­toire and Broad­way mu­si­cals. (He sup­plied the singing voice for Ros­sano Brazzi’s Emile de Becque in the film ver­sion of “South Pa­cific”!) But he con­founds ex­pec­ta­tions with a richly nu­anced, emo­tion­ally com­plex and thor­oughly lov­able por­trayal. For Wag­ne­r­i­ans, in fact, Tozzi’s sur­pris­ing and near- de­fin­i­tive take on the role is a must-see.

Bari­tone William Work­man’s per­for­mance as the bird catcher Pa­pageno is no less charm­ing or mem­o­rable in a 1971 pro­duc­tion of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Arthaus 101 265), con­ducted by Horst Stein. Free of the mug­ging that can sink this role like a stone, Work­man is un­der­stated (and, hence, all the fun­nier) with comic busi­ness and cre­ates a sym­pa­thetic, three-di­men­sional char­ac­ter who man­ages to tug a few heart­strings by per­for­mance’s end. Ni­co­lai Gedda’s Prince Tamino and Edith Mathis’s Pam­ina are no­tably en­gag­ing as well — no doubt aided by stage di­rec­tion by vet­eran film ac­tor Peter Usti­nov — and all three sing with mel­liflu­ous voices tai­lor-made for Mozart.

But, ex­cept for an ar­rest­ing cameo by Di­et­rich Fis­cher-Dieskau as the Speaker, the rest of the cast is more of a dra­matic li­a­bil­ity, with sonorous bass Hans Sotin a poker-faced Saras­tro, and so­prano Cristina Deutekom (her bizarre, gar­gling col­oratura on full dis­play) a ci­pher as the Queen of the Night. The less said about the wince-in­duc­ing, old-school black­face on Monos­tatos the bet­ter, and the cheesy sets and moth-eaten an­i­mal cos­tumes don’t help mat­ters. Much of the stag­ing seems geared to the 6-an­dun­der crowd, though it’s hard to imag­ine any kid to­day not be­ing bored to tears by the thing.

A bet­ter bet is We­ber’s “Der Freis­chutz” (Arthaus 101 271), filmed in 1968, with Lud­wig again on the podium. Rarely mounted here in the States, “Freis­chutz” — with its score awash in folk melodies and whoop­ing hunt­ing horns, and a plot full of pacts with the Devil and shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tions won with magic bul­lets — is a text­book ex­am­ple of Ger­man ro­man­tic opera. There’s an ir­re­sistible quaint­ness to this Ham­burg pro­duc­tion, from its fauxrus­tic hunt­ing lodge to its cos­tumes right out of the Brothers Grimm. The Devil-con­jur­ing be­comes a trippy amal­gam of 19th-cen­tury stage hokum and 1960s psychedelia that’s sure to in­duce chuck­les, yet man­ages to catch the fairy­tale vibe of ev­ery­thing else in the show.

The singers are an in­ter­est­ing bunch. So­prano Ar­lene Saun­ders — the long-inthe-tooth Eva in the “Meis­tersinger” dis­cussed above — is more con­vinc­ingly win­some and girl­ish of voice here as the hero­ine Agathe, and Mathis’s An­nchen is an adorable cre­ation. The tor­tured hero Max is sung by Ernst Kozub, whom Wag­ne­r­i­ans will know as the tenor whose in­tractable per­form­ing sched­ule lost him the plum gig of singing Siegfried on Ge­org Solti’s land­mark record­ing of Wag­ner’s “Ring.” He’s got the req­ui­site vo­cal heft for the role, though at­tempts at soft singing are not with­out strain, and it’s clear a less- than- re­fined sen­si­bil­ity is at work. His haunted, self­loathing por­trayal of the char­ac­ter, though, leaves its mark, set­ting an ap­pro­pri­ately brood­ing tone for the pro­duc­tion.

Best of all is Got­t­lob Frick — the finest Ger­man bass of his gen­er­a­tion, and ar­guably of the last cen­tury — with that trade­mark voice of his, pitch black and sound­ing as if it’s emerged from some pri­mor­dial ooze. Kas­par, the shady hunter in league with the Devil, is clearly the vil­lain of the piece. But We­ber sup­plies him with arias of drunken rev­el­ing and sheer malev­o­lent glee that lend a sense of off- kil­ter fun to the part, and Frick has him­self a grand old time play­ing it. The singer’s bugged-out eyes, de­ranged grins and shuf­fling lit­tle dances are a campy de­light to watch. But Frick sprin­kles those larger- than- life de­tails into a grounded and be­liev­able per­for­mance of the part. As with Tozzi and Work­man, Frick re­minds us, across the decades, that opera can still be fresh, vi­tally alive theater.


The newly re­leased DVDs were adapted from films of Ham­burg State Opera pro­duc­tions.

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