An Advocate of Action to Set the Tone of Opera

Walter Felsenstein directs Hanns Nocker in Offenbach's "Bluebeard," one of the productions anthologized in a DVD tribute to Felsenstein.
Walter Felsenstein directs Hanns Nocker in Offenbach's "Bluebeard," one of the productions anthologized in a DVD tribute to Felsenstein. (By Dagmar Mammitzsch)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

"La Bohème" is updated to a world of "wild and crazy guys" at the Washington National Opera; a video of a decomposing rabbit appears in "Parsifal" at Bayreuth. Some people call this kind of opera production Regietheater (director's theater); others, Eurotrash opera. The basic idea is that it puts as much emphasis on the direction as on the music, and it's led to all kinds of strange productions: Aida as a cleaning lady, Simon Boccanegra as a Mafia don, "Nabucco" with a swarm of bees in lieu of a chorus.

Historically, there are antecedents to this kind of production. One taproot runs back to Walter Felsenstein, the legendary director of the Komische Oper in postwar East Berlin, who sought, in months of rehearsal, to give the dramatic action of an opera as much importance as the music. His productions were revelatory; elderly Germans still talk about the 1956 "Cunning Little Vixen," which almost single-handedly put Leos Janacek's opera about foxes and forest creatures into the operatic canon. And his students included some noted Regietheater exponents, among them Goetz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer (whose 1978 "Flying Dutchman" at Bayreuth cast the whole opera as Senta's dream).

But what exactly did Felsenstein do? And why was it so important? Part of the answer is given by a significant new box set of DVDs that should be required viewing for anyone who really loves opera. The "Walter Felsenstein Edition" (priced at $450 on contains painstakingly restored footage of all the Felsenstein productions that made it onto film: seven operas extending over 16 hours, made between 1956 and 1976 and long unavailable, as well as a book and various loose reproductions of writings and sketches, bound like holy relics. The set is a time capsule that offers, if not a definitive statement, at least a number of revealing glimpses into what made Felsenstein's work so extraordinary.

You have to meet it halfway. If you come in expecting an immediate vision of interpretive brilliance, your first reaction to the DVDs may be dismay. The productions are dated; most are made for TV, reflecting a 1960s East German aesthetic; the singers are of varying degrees of ability and lumpiness, and many of their gestures seem histrionic.

But stick with it. Because once you get used to the limitations, this set becomes addictive. It ranges from a film version of Beethoven's "Fidelio" to a dress rehearsal of a staged "Don Giovanni," and includes a "Marriage of Figaro" filmed after the director's death in 1975. But its core is four made-for-television operas based on classic Komische Oper productions: Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" and "Bluebeard," Verdi's "Otello" and, of course, Janacek's "Vixen," which the restorers have given a sepia tint.

It's a strange, almost random assortment of work. What unifies it is that it has no dead time. There is always a thought behind every action; the singers are meaningfully involved. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't -- but the overall result is strikingly vivid.

Forget so-called Eurotrash. Felsenstein himself abhorred what he called "the artificially imposed directorial concept, the experimental production driven by an obsession with originality." He saw himself as serving the composer.

But one man's "serving" is another man's radical intervention. To Felsenstein, it might include moving around scenes or making cuts in the music. These sound like extreme liberties until you see the results. The operas he played with the most are the operas that need the most help dramaturgically: "Fidelio" and "Hoffmann" (which in any case has a number of different performance versions, since Offenbach died before he finished it).

"Fidelio," an actual film rather than an adaptation of a staged production, becomes a fresh drama rather than the flawed singspiel it usually appears. I could have done without the hokey dream sequence in which Florestan conjures up a vision of his past life. But the vivid terror of the peasants at the approach of Pizarro, the anguish of Leonore at seeing the crumpled prisoner she knows to be her husband while she, masquerading as a boy, digs his grave -- these are, if not sophisticated, suddenly believable.

This is what makes the oeuvre stand out: Felsenstein truly believes in these figures. Offenbach's zany "Bluebeard" takes on an aspect of terror, simply because if you try to create a credible Bluebeard, a man who has just buried his fifth wife and is already looking past his sixth to his seventh, you get a frightening psychopath. The whole piece takes on the quality of a grim fairy tale, a "Wizard of Oz" world as painted by George Grosz: satire made far too real, despite its dottiness and its deliberately not believable happy ending.

One weakness of these productions is that the singers, for all of Felsenstein's schooling, are not good enough actors to sustain this level of drama. The first act of "Otello" is memorable particularly for Christa Noack's portrayal of Desdemona as a woman in the throes of her first, intense physical passion. But as the piece unfolds, the actress runs out of ways to express her anguish -- as does Hanns Nocker's intense but sometimes histrionic Otello.

Nocker, who is also the Hoffmann and the Bluebeard, is a respectable singer, powerful if a little tight. Other vocal notables are Anny Schlemm as Boulotte in "Bluebeard" (though less so as Donna Elvira) and Rudolf Asmus, the redoubtable Czech bass-baritone who appears in nearly every opera. The conductors include a young Kurt Masur, leading a very fast "Otello"; and Václav Neumann, the company's former music director, conducting "Cunning Little Vixen," as he did for all but three shows in its eight-year run. But this is not a set you turn to for its vocal wonders as much as for the totality of its performance.

The biggest problem with these films is that the made-for-TV realizations do not actually document the staged productions that represent the best of Felsenstein's work. (There are tantalizing clips of the stage versions of "Hoffmann" and "Bluebeard" on the bonus tracks, looking even more vivid than the films.) Felsenstein tried to adapt his work to the medium of film, but he was not a great film director, and the result is sometimes stilted. Particularly distracting is the tic of focusing in on a singer's motionless face while the aria, representing inner thoughts, plays on the soundtrack.

Felsenstein's ideas about stage direction have been transformed, over the years, like the words in a game of Telephone. The idea that stage direction can play a role equal to the music has been interpreted in ways that would have made him recoil.

This set does not portray him as a radical innovator by any means. But it transmits the solidity of his work, and a basic principle that is seldom encountered: that a singer in an opera can and should make something happen onstage at all times -- not through excess, but simply through a conception of a character. Felsenstein regarded this approach as part of a fundamental human "need for theater," as distinct from what, too often, is merely "a moral obligation to attend the theater." Even through its old-fashionedness and flaws, this set is still able to awaken the seeds of that need to new life.

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