Dated, Dusty and a Bit Tacky, but Still Keepers
German Opera Films From the ’60s & ’70s Offer Rare Glimpses Of Forgotten Stars
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.