Born in Vienna in 1901 Walter Felsenstein first worked as a theatre director in his home town as well as an actor on several German stages. From the early 1930s he also devoted himself to opera and in 1942 directed Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Salzburg Mozart festival with Clemens Krauss conducting. In 1947 he created the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he was director until his death in 1975. The present Le nozze di Figaro was premiered on 26 February that year. It was his last production and thus a very valuable document of his achievements in the field of weaving together dramatic and musical values. Two of his pupils were Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer, who have both had luminous careers.
His concept of Le nozze di Figaro, sung in German as was his wont with non-German operas, is a very telling example of his approach to standard opera. The sets are realistic, bur stylized, beautiful but simple, acting is the main thing. It has to be said from the outset that Felsenstein as a principle chooses his casts more from their acting capacity rather than their ability to sing. This doesn’t automatically imply that singing is subordinate, but time and again one reacts to felicities of real life – of today – but played in an environment that is decidedly 18th century. This is clever, and witty and – I hardly dare to use the expression – present day! Even though the production is 35 years old it hasn’t dated a jot. Compare this with many productions of quite recent origin despite their pretensions to be universal.
The staging and drama of this production, as filmed here, is not in the least per se revolutionary, but it is, to my mind, as close to the original idea, as seen through roughly contemporary eyes, as one could wish. Felsenstein in no way violates the Da Ponte/Mozart concept but lays bare the conflicts and the feelings that permeate this airy drama – like it or not.
Working from basically realistic but slightly stylised sets – beautiful not least in the last act’s magical garden – he manages to bring out the relations, the conflicts and the erotic complications in a whirlwind performance. Not everyone I know agrees with the whirlwind simile at least not when it comes to the second act, which takes almost half an hour to get the door to the cabinet opened – only to find that there is no Cherubino within sight; we, the audience, already knew this. But that is another matter and under Felsenstein’s watchful eye, and thanks to the excellent acting from the leading characters, the scene becomes uncommonly digestible. Modern camera technique would possibly have allowed the TV-producer a wider array of possibilities to follow the action in more depth, but, generally speaking, I am quite happy with the many overviews and satisfied not to be treated to far too many close ups of wide-open mouths and strained facial expressions. Felsenstein’s – and in this case Georg Mielke’s - classical restraint is only to be applauded. What is also worth mentioning is the highly realistic colouring of what obviously started out as a blank-and-white film.
There isn’t a weak actor among the soloists and Felsenstein has skilfully inspired them to create three-dimensional portraits of their characters. No one should be mentioned before any of the others but I can’t resist singling out Rudolf Asmus’s jovial and rubber-faced Bartolo. He seems to have been a good speaking-actor as well, and appeared as the Major-Domo on the Philips recording of Ariadne auf Naxos in the 1980s. In 1976 his rotund and thundering singing voice was also at its fruitiest. Otherwise the singing is not the first reason to acquire this set. Quite the best vocal contribution comes from Magdalena Falewicz, who is outstanding in every respect. I saw this Polish soprano as a very good Madama Butterfly at the ENO some 25 years ago, singing quite idiomatic English, and here her German is just as fine. Felsenstein’s practice was to perform foreign operas in German translation, which has its pros and cons. The Italian parlando and the legato singing have a tendency to become rather four-square when transformed to the more consonant-intensive German. Neither Figaro nor the Count in this performance can compete for vocal beauty with their more illustrious rivals on a number of Italian recordings on DVD or CD. The ladies are more successful in that respect and Ursula Reinhardt-Kiss – a sprightly and visually so appealing Susanna – sings beautifully.
There are some special features as extra bonuses, including Felsenstein’s handwritten staging details for the first scene and an interview with the director. On DVD 2 there are segments from Felsenstein productions ranging from a 1945 Pariser Leben at the Hebbel-Theater and then short excerpts from no less than eight productions at the Komische Oper between 1947 and 1961. The technical quality is variable but they give a clear view of his expert handling of large stage forces.
The historical importance of this issue is high but also non-historians should give this Die Hochzeit des Figaro, as the German title goes, a try. If nothing else it shows that a thirty-five-year-old production can be just as alive as a brand new one and that instead of inventing improbable transportations in time or other weird readings it is fully sufficient to read Da Ponte’s libretto and listen to Mozart’s music. Felsenstein did exactly that.