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The State Opera
Written and directed by Toni Schmid, Edited by Carmen Kirchweger
HD picture format 16:9, PCM Stereo and DTS.MA 5.0, All Regions.
Language German. Subtitles; German, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese.
Reviewed in surround sound
NAXOS NBD0110V Blu-ray [89 mins]

The State Opera”? The definite article might make many of us assume this is a film about the Staatsoper in Vienna. But the Bavarian State Opera can claim to be the older institution, with predecessors dating back to the 1650’s, and is hardly less prestigious. “The State Opera” is the first film ever made about it. It holds 2000 people – which must have seemed ridiculous when it was designed in the 19th century and Munich had a population of 50,000. Now it has a population 1.5 million people so almost every one of its 350 shows a year (45 different productions!) are sold out well in advance.

It features three recent opera productions – Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera – seen in performance on stage, but also when in development. We see both orchestral and choral rehearsals for Mastersingers, with the Music Director Kirill Petrenko (who never gives interviews we learn, but not from him!) We do hear from its tenor lead, Jonas Kaufmann, quite a lot. But then he is the star singer of the Bavarian opera, a Munich resident, and as he says “to go to work in my slippers is amazing”. It was Nikolaus Bachler the General Manager who tells us how he brought Kaufmann back to the city where he was born and the house where he first heard an opera. Kaufmann is interesting about the role of Walther von Stolzing (seen in this production in cool leather jacket and toting a guitar case) and especially his prize song. We hear it quite a lot in the film as we do in the opera, so it’s as well it is sung by such a charismatic artist. He comments on the text, which he finds less than impressive at times, which makes the words hard to remember when the music is so similar from verse to verse. He admits to sometimes switching verses inadvertently.

Ivor Bolton and his soprano lead Elsa Benoit speak similarly about the Rameau, which was included to show the range of the house beyond its four pillars of Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Mozart. Anja Harteros (with tenor Piotr Beczala) is the star of the Verdi, and sings fabulously in the extracts we see. Small wonder she is asked to sing there annually. She is conducted by Zubin Mehta, the previous music director, and both are seen in rehearsal and in interview. The house is also the home of the Bavarian State Ballet, so we also see the corps de ballet rehearsing and performing, and hear from some dancers and directors, and see some of La Bayadère. The orchestral players offer some whimsical opinions, including the female viola player who explains why she could never go out with a horn player.

Equally intriguing are the scenes behind the scenes, showing the costume department, the shoe store, the set construction, and the backstage technology. Even the front of house manager – who arrived initially to sing a counter-tenor role - and a cloakroom attendant give their perspectives. The film thus gives a fascinating insight into the whole business of putting on an opera in Munich and by extension in any major opera house. (Munich’s uniqueness might well be its funding, from the Bavarian State, the Federal State, and then the box office). There are many more fascinating moments in this excellent film than can be covered in a short review, and this unique documentary is highly recommended. It is not a disc you will view very often perhaps, but you will want to share it with opera loving friends, missing the real experience thing during lockdown. There is a good booklet essay in English and German, but no extras. But then it is a unique film and needs none. It might well make you want to go to Munich and see an opera there when next you can. Just remember to book early.

Roy Westbrook

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