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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Ritter Blaubart (Bluebeard), Opéra Bouffe in Three Acts (1866)
Hanns Nocker (tenor) - Bluebeard; Anny Schlemm (mezzo) - Boulette; Werner Enders (baritone) - King Bobèche; Ruth Schob-Lipka (mezzo) - Queen Clémentine; Ingid Czerny (soprano) - Princess Hermia; Manfred Hopp (tenor) - Prince Saphir; Rudolf Asmus (baritone) – Popolani; Count Oscar – Helmut Polze (baritone ); Alvarez – Hans Otto Rogge (bass); Isaure – Irmgard Arnold (soprano); Héloise – Evelyn Bölicke (mezzo); Eléonore – Eva-Maria Baum (soprano); Rosalinde – Christa Noack (soprano); Blanche – Ute Trekel-Burchhardt (mezzo)
Berlin Komische Oper Chorus and Orchestra/Karl-Fritz Voigtmann
rec. 1973, DEFA Studios Babelsberg, Potsdam, Berlin
Direction: Walter Felsenstein
Scripts: Walter Felsenstein, Georg Mielke
Sets: Wilfried Werz, adapted by Paul Lehmann
Costumes: Helga Scherff
Blu-Ray region code A,B,C; Picture Format: 1080i HD; Sound Format: PCM Stereo;
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109437 [139:00]

Walter Felsenstein is something of a legendary figure in the post WWII annals of European theatrical history. His 28 year tenure as director of the Kommische Oper of Berlin, a company that he founded, is now looked on as something of a golden age of stage craft in these days of dismal shock value regie opera stagings. Felsenstein had a way of taking a very fresh look at the operas that he chose to revive without ever quite betraying the composer or librettist’s intentions. One might argue that the standards that he set were responsible for creating the breeding ground for the production atrocities that are regularly placed before the public today, as stage directors now go to extreme lengths to apply a form of psychological torture to their audiences, of whom a significant portion of actually enjoy being abusively treated in this way.

Felsenstein chose to revive this long-absent Offenbach operetta in a German translation in 1963. The production was a huge hit for his company from the outset and would be revived several times and tour throughout Europe & Japan before being retired in 1992. In 1973 Felsenstein decided that the time had come to film the full production on a soundstage. It was fortuitous timing because he died only two years later which leaves this as one of the best documents of his stagecraft.

The cast features German performers who were all quite familiar with this generally amusing staging. The heroine Boulotte is engagingly portrayed by the talented soprano turned mezzo, Anny Schlemm. Schlemm’s portrait of a sexpot peasant girl is executed with assured comic timing. Her lush and somewhat round and nearly overripe tone seems to be bursting at the seams and enhances her portrait of barely contained lustiness. The outsized villain Bluebeard is given a delightfully wacky thrust by the recently deceased Hans Nocker, who was sometimes credited as Hans Günter Nocker. His exaggerated portrait fills the screen with a crazed enthusiasm and lovely golden tone. He even manages to dominate his extremely amusing costume which all but shouts “This is a case of serious male overcompensating.”

Rudolf Asmus as the alchemist Popolani has a baritone of rich tonal depth and a gentler comic persona. His costume and make-up have altered his appearance so that he resembles nothing so much as a rather cuddly looking elf. While Helmut Polze is a bit dry of tone as Count Oscar, there is a consistently charming portrayal of the two put-upon lovers by Manfred Hopp and Ingrid Czerny. It is only the over-the-top characterization of King Bobèche by Werner Enders that has worn extremely thin over time. Enders’s manic behaviour as an Erich von Stroheim lookalike simultaneously falls flat and overwhelms the proceedings. It is the one thing that probably worked better in the theater than it does under the close scrutiny of the cameras.

Felsenstein has adapted his staging for the cameras very cleverly so that the action, apart from Bobèche, never comes across as if it is in search of a proscenium to feel at home. His work with the chorus is especially skilled as each chorus member gets their own character vignette to enliven the film.

This Blu-ray release comes with a huge 4K remastering logo on the front cover which might lead one to think that it would only be playable with a 4K player and monitor. This is not the case as the Blu-ray has been released in a format compatible with standard Blu-ray equipment. The restoration of this film was sponsored by the German Federal Film Board (FFA) with the participation of the director’s son, Christoph Felsenstein. Happily this was preserved on film stock rather than the more common video tape that was used at the time. The original film elements have been restored with care to achieve an absolutely pristine appearance that places the visual quality of film on par with similar cinematic restorations of big budget musicals from the 1960s. The sound elements of the film are clear and listed as being in stereo although I could not detect much separation between the two channels. There is an accompanying booklet with an excellent essay about the making of Felsenstein’s film which is accompanied by images of a handful of the original set and costume designs.

Mike Parr

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