DEUTSCHE OPER BERLIN: 100 YEARS, 1912-2012
, Giuseppe Patané
, Arthur Rother
, Wolfgang Sawallisch
, Lorin Maazel
, cond; Elisabeth Grümmer
, Pilar Lorengar
, Renata Tebaldi
, Erika Köth
, Lisa Otto
(sop); Christa Ludwig
, Patricia Johnson
(mez); Donald Grobe
, Hans Beirer
, Mario Ferrara
, James King
(ten); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
, Walter Berry
, William Dooley
, Barry McDaniel
(bar); Josef Greindl
, Martti Talvela
(bs); Deutsche Op Berlin O & Ch
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107522, mono (6 DVDs: 728:00) Live: Berlin 1961-67
Die Heimliche ehe
Il matrimonio segreto
This set of five operas on DVDs, issued individually between March 2011 and August 2012, are packaged here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The original opera house was one of the very first outside Bayreuth to have a sunken, hidden orchestra pit, and they also borrowed a few ideas about the stage setup from them. Bombed by the Allies in 1943-44, it was considered beyond repair, so the entire company moved to the Theatre des Westerns which had only been slightly damaged, where they stayed until the new opera house was built in 1961. Ironically, it was finished only six weeks after the erection of the infamous Berlin Wall.
All the Italian-language operas except
are sung in German and thus suffer often from constricted consonant and vowel sounds simply because the language doesn’t fit the music. The translators did at least match the musical rhythms fairly well, but that’s small consolation for most of it sounding wrong. Moreover Fischer-Dieskau, a splendid Rodrigo in
sounds surprisingly wrong for
He doesn’t sing badly—on the contrary, he’s in splendid voice—but there’s absolutely no character there. He’s just an empty suit with a beautiful voice, and that’s not good enough for this role. Grümmer sounds frequently pinched on the German vowels, placed much too high in her tessitura, whereas if she had sung in Italian she might have sounded better (though, when she warms up, she manages to show off her floating technique). Walter Berry is the only member of this cast who looks and sounds comfortable singing the translation with the exception, ironically, of American tenor Donald Grobe as Don Ottavio. Both not only sound wonderful, but act their roles with a touch of realism. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that Grobe’s voice was almost as beautiful in timbre, and had a better technique, than Fritz Wunderlich of anointed memory. Even poor Erika Köth, who had one of the prettiest soprano voices of her time, sounds nasally pinched trying to force those German vowels into high notes intended for Italian. The poor dear!
Unfortunately, the performance as a whole—particularly the finales to both acts in which everyone sings—is badly compromised by the presence of Pilar Lorengar as Elvira, who to my ears possessed one of the ugliest, most fluttery voices of her time and whose high notes were always shrill and blasting. Her vibrato was so wide and so pronounced that she always sounded like she was “just warming up,” as if she just might get that horrendous vibrancy under control sooner or later, but neither sooner nor later ever came. She was simply a poor singer from first note to last, and remained so through her entire career.
Fricsay, as usual, conducts his Mozart extremely well (he
gets that impossible translation to fit into the act I finale music) and it’s interesting, if curious in an old-school sort of way, to see Carl Ebert’s staid and predictable stage production, but overall, you can have this performance for all it affected me.
The direction for 1962’s
was passed over from Ebert, who retired shortly after that
to Hans-Peter Lehmann who was Ebert’s assistant at the 1958 Glyndebourne Festival. The conductor was the highly skilled Giuseppe Patané, and for this auspicious occasion Renata Tebaldi sang her first and last stage performance in Berlin. To accommodate her, the solo cast all performed in Italian, but according to the notes there was insufficient time for the chorus to re-learn their music in that language, so they sing in German. Nowadays we find this all very strange, but that was what life was like in the good old days—except in America, where English translations of opera texts were very occasional and polyglot productions even rarer. Our intrepid Otello, Hans Beirer, has a big, beefy, and at times wobbly voice, but he’s a good actor and his phrasing is musical. Even better as actor and singer is the young William Dooley (only 29 years old at the time) as Iago—he even attempts his trills, such as the one in the
portion of the first-act duet with Roderigo (Mercker) and the one in the second-act duet with Otello. Listening to the opening scene reveals a problem, either of the performers on stage being unable to hear the orchestra or possible lack of rehearsal, but everyone—including the chorus—is a split-second behind the orchestra, at least through Iago’s “Brindisi,” but in a live performance this is sometimes an occupational hazard.
Tebaldi is in surprisingly good voice (these were the years when the flatness in her top range became increasingly evident) and, more interestingly, she acts out the words with her voice, a trait she was not always known for. What a pleasure it is to hear her thus. Beirer’s lack of vocal subtlety (and sometimes of vocal control) is made up for by some excellent stage acting, and one cannot fault him for at least attempting to sing his lines in the love duet softly (he comes close, bless his stentorian little heart). He is thus fairly faithful to the score for the most part. Patané’s conducting slows down in the opening of the second act, which is a shame as this allows the drama of the opening scene (which includes Iago’s “Credo”) to slacken, despite Dooley’s excellent acting both visually and vocally. He is more of a subtle than an obvious Iago—you might say a modern-day top executive type rather than Sweeney Todd. It’s a bit odd to see a singer with the last name of Wagner—mezzo Sieglinde, who sang Erda in Linz and Carmen in Berlin—singing a role (Emilia) in a Verdi opera, but she does a fine job. Patané picks exactly the right tempo for “Ora e per sempre addio,” a brisk military-march clip that fits the music perfectly, and then slams brilliantly into the following dramatic passage with Iago. The tension is thus built up for “Si, pel ciel,” though once again the gremlins of the evening lead the singers in and out of synch with the orchestra.
But to be honest, the glories of this performance far outweigh the few glitches. So often you can see Tebaldi “thinking” of her next passage or high note before it emerges from her throat, and when it does, baby, it’s
She was really “in the zone” this night. For all his occasional unsteadiness, Beirer’s Otello is but one example of many as to why I’ve never felt comfortable with Plácido Domingo singing the role. He’s a lyric tenor, and thus no matter how fine he sings, he diminishes the role. As a stage actor, Beirer is not quite as good as my memories of Pier Mirando-Ferrara or Jon Vickers, but he’s still very fine. This one is a keeper.
of spring 1963 we have a new stage director, Gustav Rudolf Sellner, whose work we now see in each of the last three videos. He doesn’t do a lot with stage movement but, rather, focuses on the characters expressing a natural style of acting with their faces and eyes. One might well think this was done specifically to play to the camera, yet one must remember that this is how it was played on stage as well. By using sparse sets and a mostly darkened stage, Sellner depended on lighting the characters in such a way that their facial expressions could be seen in the audience as well. This imparts a much more modern as well as naturalistic cast on the proceedings.
This video seems to have suffered the most corrosive damage over the years. The soundtrack skips the opening note of the opera after the overture (on opening night the
No. 3, but here restored to the familiar
overture) and there are two moments—one of them during Pizarro’s “Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!”—where frames are missing, forcing the restoration engineers to freeze-frame on the singers’ faces for a few seconds. Rother’s conducting is both powerful and a bit slow, though not nearly as slow as the terrible Klemperer recording, which also used Ludwig as Leonore/Fidelio. When one is watching the stage action while listening one becomes aware that the tempos and the stage concept complement each other most of the time (a rare exception being the slightly draggy “O wär ich schon,” which really serves no purpose whatsoever). Sellner has moved up the costumes from the late 18th century to c.1830, and Ludwig’s costume and hair styling are so well done that, for once, Fidelio does indeed appear to be a young man and not a busty soprano barely able to disguise her feminine form. There is also some slight distortion of the soundtrack here, which mostly affects high violins and soprano notes, but the pitch remains steady and the sound is relatively clear and full. Rother and his singers hit exactly the right tempo for “Mir ist so wunderbar,” which in my opinion is the most exquisite piece of music Beethoven ever wrote: a four-part canon that grows out of a duet, the music so delicately scored and so emotionally affecting that I cannot help tearing up every time I hear it. Otto had, probably, the most gorgeous German lyric-soubrette voice of her time, a worthy successor to Erna Berger, and she is splendid here. Greindl always needed some time to warm up, thus he is not at his best in “Mir ist so wunderbar” but is splendid afterwards. Walter Berry is a particularly slimy Pizarro, his cruel nature thinly disguised. (Question: if you worked for Pizarro, would you want to go to work every day? I sure wouldn’t.)
James King was probably the second-best Florestan in the world at the time (first honors going to Jon Vickers), yet though he acts and sings very well he is not terribly subtle and in fact slightly stagy. (We’ve been spoiled too much, I think, by Vickers and Jonas Kaufman.) But let’s face it, you simply can’t assemble a cast this good nowadays for the simple reason that the ideal singers are spread too thin and have to be booked seven to ten years in advance. One of Rother’s slower tempos makes sense: For once, Leonore and Florestan don’t have to strangle themselves trying to manipulate “O namenlöse freude!” All in all, Rother’s conducting is wonderfully effective and dramatic, only slightly less good than, say, Hans Schimidt-Isserstedt or Karl Böhm might have been. In toto, despite the technical glitches mentioned above, this is the best video
on the market. It doesn’t distort the story with Eurotrash nonsense, and all the musical and dramatic elements are firmly in place.
Sellner’s production of
also sung in German, is pretty good thanks to the participation of King, Fischer-Dieskau (in a role much more congenial to his acting abilities), Greindl, and a newcomer as the Grand Inquisitor, Martti Talvela. The first-rate Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts and does a fine job, but I wish he’d have insisted in at least keeping all the music of the “abridged” four-act version intact. Right from the start, they chop down the famous Carlo-Rodrigo duet (“Dio che nell’alma infondere”), completely omitting the section with the monks (who are standing right behind them on stage, so there was no excuse for it), and there are other little “paper cuts” in the score hither and thither (i.e., the royal procession in the first scene, the middle of the garden scene, and some of the music before and after Eboli’s “Veil song”). We are also saddled once again with Lorengar, this time as Elisabetta, and although Sellner draws more out of her in terms of acting with the face, she is still the same old Lorengar vocally; “Tu che la vanita” is quite evidently beyond her meager abilities. Even though there was a certain rationale in not presenting Schiller in Italian in his home country, all those “Schmerzens,” “Zei mirs,” and “O bliebs” sound out of place in this music. (And if your aim is to present Schiller’s drama, why all the cuts?) I was, however, greatly pleased with Greindl’s interpretation of Philip II, which was as a real S.O.B., not too far removed from the historical Philip and not as “nice” as many basses nowadays portray him as, for instance, José van Dam in the excellent French-language video production on Kultur. (I’ve often wondered what exactly Verdi had in mind when he wrote “Ella giammai m’amo,” since the King isn’t a character you feel sorry for. I suppose it’s somewhat analogous to the Duke of Mantua’s “Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi veder le lagrime” in
) Patricia Johnson, who I had only heard previously as Countess Geschwitz in
had a wonderfully clear, bright, technically secure mezzo, exactly right for Eboli—her “O don fatale,” despite a momentary sound glitch that distorts the pitch, will have you on the edge of your seat—and everywhere you turn in this production Fischer-Dieskau is “right on” his character. The Posa-Philip duet that closes act I is about as chilling and fine a piece of singing-acting, as I’ve seen or heard in my entire life. And of course, any video that preserves one of Talvela’s roles is worth seeing—he was always a fine actor in addition to a heck of a singer. One of the most interesting aspects of this production—following the directions of Schiller’s play and not Verdi’s changed version—is that, in the end, Don Carlos does
escape into the cloister, but is taken into custody by the Grand Inquisitor.
So my final verdict on this one? Really, despite all the glitches mentioned above, I feel it’s a keeper. After all, if you want to avoid the bad singing in this production, just skip “chapters” 9, 11, 23, and 30, which have the most extended singing by Lorengar. The rest of it, despite the numerous cuts, will have you on the edge of your seat.
Il matrimonio segreto
(Die Heimliche ehe) we have the pleasure of watching Greindl, Johnson, McDaniel, and Grobe in comic roles. We also get the pleasure of seeing and hearing Lorin Maazel conduct when he was
Lorin Maazel: crisp phrasing, impeccable musical accents, lively tempos, and a superb sense of structure similar to the contemporary work of Horst Stein, Carlos Kleiber, and young James Levine. For those of you who wondered, when I reviewed one of his latter-day recordings and asked, “What the heckin’ heck happened to Lorin Maazel?” well, this DVD is the answer to that question. This is GREAT conducting; it keeps you on the edge of your seat from first to last, your interest never flags, and you feel completely swept up in Maazel’s ebullience and energy. Of course, the orchestra is a little larger than we now accept in “historically informed” performances, and the strings don’t play with straight tone, heavens to Betsy! But I enjoyed it anyway! What, o what is wrong with me? Hmmm…maybe it’s just a good performance, huh?
Perhaps because this German translation, by Joachim Popelka, seems to use more open vowels for the high notes, it falls more gracefully on the ear (it reminds me of some of the translations one heard on those Electrola LPs of comic opera highlights in the 60s). And Sellner provides a great many little gags in the staging: In the first scene, for instance, while Paolino and Carolina are singing their duet, the former spins the latter from one side of him to the other as if they were dancing; and as the orchestra is playing the final bars of the duet’s score, a servant runs out (unobserved by them) from the wings to place a seat right behind them, so when they go to sit down a chair is there! A little later on, when Geronimo (Greindl) sings, “everyone dance a little round,” Carolina—standing off to the side—moves in counter-motion with her back to the other dancers in perfect synchronization, holding her hands up to her face in the ubiquitous “What shall I do?” pose. It’s little touches like this that keep you smiling throughout the production. Once again, Sellner relies heavily on the facial expressions of his singers to score acting points—since this is comedy, some are naturally exaggerated a bit. And once again, everyone is in fabulous voice, even Köth at age 40, Otto at age 48, and Greindl at 55. Patricia Johnson is just as fine in 18th-century comic coloratura as she is in Verdi’s dramatics. I think she could have sung the phone book and made it sound good.
The video quality of all five operas is rather dark, even when it seems to me that the stage was flooded with light. Whether this was the result of the actual lighting of the time or a deterioration of the original films, I think the producers should have lightened up the images a bit. By the way, every video is in brown and pale pink, not strictly black and white.
There are lessons to be learned from these videos, just as there were lessons to be learned from some of the better video productions from the Hamburg Opera of the 1960s. They capture a period when sets and costumes remained fairly traditional, but stage acting was gradually but surely improving. Not everyone was on board in this: As mentioned, some of the stage acting of King, Lorengar, and Fischer-Dieskau was just acceptable, not really believable, though the latter definitely seemed to take better to Rodrigo than to Don Giovanni. One is consistently impressed with Greindl, Berry, Grobe, and McDaniel; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that Greindl was something like Gabriel Bacquier, a pioneer in operatic stage acting on the level of a Chaliapin—realism wedded to respect for the text. Thus Rudolf Bing was right in wanting to create an ensemble company at the Metropolitan during these same years, in addition to improving the orchestra and chorus (which were generally well below an acceptable standard), but was told by the Board to just hire major international stars and let the chips fall where they may. Nowadays we see an outgrowth of the “star system” in major opera houses, and these “star” singers are booked so many years in advance that smaller companies cannot enhance their own productions with them. Thus, if you’re lucky, the modern Met may get great singing-actors of the caliber of Jonas Kaufman, Barbara Frittoli, Sergei Leiferkus, or Bryn Terfel once in a while, but as in the Met of the 1960s and ’70s they are interspersed with stand-there-and-sing folks as well. These videos also show one how to combine modern acting techniques with traditional staging. One need not move so far into the realm of the bizarre in order to make people “think” about the meaning of the opera. I can’t imagine that the Posa-Philip or Philip-Inquisitor scenes in
could be performed any better than they are here, and we get the proper costumes and staging to complement them.
After checking the prices for these videos online, I’d have to say that you’d be doing yourself a favor to buy the entire boxed set. The individual operas are selling for close to $30 each ($40 for
) while the complete set goes for around $85; thus, just buying three of the four performances I liked the most (which were the
) will run you more than the entire set, and this way you get the deluxe box along with a wonderful booklet containing more history and photos of the Deutsche Oper’s centennial. In addition, it will give you a chance to see how Fischer-Dieskau’s acting evolved between 1961 and 1965 as well as how stage direction evolved from Carl Ebert to Gustav Rudolf Sellner. This in itself is instructive and fascinating. If you note my caveats above, you’ll be well prepared for what you will see and hear, and I think you’ll truly enjoy most of it as I did.
Lynn René Bayley