That was the year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Bonnie and Clyde, but the boisterous, iconoclastic mood of those times remains far, far away inside the Hamburg opera house. The cameras capture — in unsubtle color reminiscent of the “coloring” of b&w films by Ted Turner — a handsome, well-directed traditional production. As a snapshot of a typical, but classy, performance of a standard work at a German opera house in a time now long, long ago, this restored DVD makes for a charming treasure.
The charm begins with a “backstage” perspective as a prompter calls for the conductor, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, who offers an avuncular smile as he enters the pit and cues the overture. Cameras then go into the dressing room, briefly catching sight of most of the principals finishing their make-up or tidying their costume. Eventually our Figaro, Heinz Blankenburg (an American, by the way) passes by, and the camera follows him onto the stage, where the curtain rises at the end of the overture and we see a full house ready for the show.
But that is just a director’s trick; this is not a performance filmed before a live audience, as the obviously canned applause at the end of each act indicates. The lip-syncing quickly becomes apparent, as well as a “studio echo” heard in forte passages. However, the film director (Joachim Hess) stays true to the essence of a stage performance, with many wide shots that wisely capture the stage action. Because of the opening sequence, the cast and credits roll after the first act.
The cast’s winning verve and comfort in their roles trump any regrets about the dated nature of the presentation. While Blankenburg may play up Figaro’s hearty good nature a bit much, he makes for a creditable foil to the excellent Count of Tom Krause. This is a classic portrayal, capturing the Count’s lust, temper, frustration, awareness of his own bad behavior — and sung impeccably. Cute but not cutesy, Edith Mathis presents an adorable Susanna. Arlene Saunders doesn’t quite have the richness of voice to really score in the Countess’s big arias, but she acts well. Though Elisabeth Steiner never looks for a moment like a boy as Cherubino, her high spirits carry her through, along with her attractive voice.
Why has Arthaus provided such a hideous graphic design for the cover? A disgusting greenish wallpaper, thankfully unseen in the production, makes a backdrop for b&w photos of the cast, giving an incorrect impression of the film’s content. The booklet essay, however, is a model of its kind, with a fine note on the opera, this production, and cast biographies. The subtitles have only one unfortunate misstep, when a character says of the Count that it is “not his wife who wets his appetite.” Kinky.
As the critical cliche goes, this should not be anyone’s only DVD of the Mozart-da Ponte masterpiece. For the many, many lovers of this work, however, a lot of enjoyment awaits them inside that unfortunate cover.
image_description=W. A. Mozart: Die Hochzeit des Figaro
product_title=W. A. Mozart: Die Hochzeit des Figaro
product_by=Tom Krause (Count Almaviva), Arlene Saunders (Countess Almaviva), Heinz Blankenburg (Figaro), Edith Mathis (Susanna), Elisabeth Steiner (Cherubino), Maria Von Ilosvay (Marcellina), Kurt Marschner (Don Basilio), Members of the Corps de Ballet of the Hamburg State Opera, Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera, The Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (cond.), Joachim Hess (dir.)
product_id=Arthaus Musik 101 263 [DVD]