Walter Felsenstein Edition

His legacy includes opera films, which have just been restored and
released as a set, which allows Felsenstein’s work to be seen
afresh. His personal touches, from broad concepts to subtle details, reveal a
sensitivity to opera as an art form, as well as the nature of specific

Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975) was the founder and, for years, director or
the Komische Oper Berlin, one of the premiere ensembles of the former East
Berlin. In his long career he was responsible for almost 200 opera
productions and also left a legacy of seven opera films, which are now
available on DVD in a single set. From his first opera film, a feature
release of Beethoven’s Fidelio from 1956 to his last
effort in this genre, a film of a staged version of Mozart’s
Die Hochzeit des Figaro, the seven works serve as testimony of
Felsenstein’s craft and set him alongside such outstanding
directors of opera on film as Rolf Liebermann. (Liebermann’s tenure
with the Hamburg Opera, from 1959 to 1973, seem to parallel
Felsenstein’s years with the Komische Oper in Berlin.) With the
release of this set of all the operas, including other documentary footage,
the Estate of Walter Felsenstein makes the director’s efforts
available to a wide audience.

Felsenstein did not treat each opera the same way, but approached each one
individually. He used, for example, the medium of the feature film for
Fidelio and arrived at a visual and dramatic interpretation of the
work that differs from some of the recent DVDs of stage productions of the
opera. Using techniques reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein in Alexander
and, to a degree, that of his contemporary Vera Stroyeva whose
film of Boris Godunov was released around the same time, Felsenstein
freely used visual images and music to convey the sense of the text, as
occurs in Marzellina’s first-act aria. Such imagery is important to
connoting mood at the climax of the opera, where the forces of nature play a
role in Felsenstein’s conception of the work, with storm and
sunshine provide one level of interpretation. Moving away from the opposition
of darkness and light, Felsenstein used of nighttime scenery for the
celebration of Leonore’s reunion with Florestan, with candle-lit
crowd scenes and a bonfire going a bit beyond the sometimes simpler
depictions of the festivities that occur when the opera is presented on
stage. The medium of film also allowed Felsenstein to make the first-act
march of the prisoners into light a more important moment in the work, as he
almost loses the previously confined men the garden near the citadel to
reflect their longing for the light of day and the need to be in free air.
This staging makes Pizarro’s concern for reining in the prisoners
more understandable then when this scene receives a more prosaic treatment in
the foursquare space of a conventional opera stage.

Other touches are worth seeing, such as the moment Leonore (as Fidelio)
looks into a mirror and sees beyond her disguise to reveal her feminine
image, an element which is inferred in the text, but never reveal to theater
audiences until climactic scene in Florestan’s cell. This cinematic
trick is tantamount to a musical quotation, which can carry a great deal of
meaning within a relatively short time. These and other aspects of the
production demonstrate Felsenstein’s deep knowledge of opera, which
was part of his professional life since the 1930s. After all, Felsenstein had
been involved with productions at the Salzburg Festival and elsewhere in
Europe, which gave him the background to support his novel effort at making a
film of the opera Fidelio.

As to the musical content of the film, the nature of the singers involved
bears attention. The roles of Marzellina and Fidelio in this production
involve women with similar voice types, and this differs from the modern
preference for more distinctive voice types. The full-voiced Florestan of Richard Holm is a welcome sound, which works well in conveying the musical line. With
Pizzaro, the bass-baritone timbre of Heinz Rehfufl [acted by Hannes Schiel]
brings a sinister note to the role, which is underscored by his physical
presence – while menacing, it is by no means a caricature of the stage
villain. His voice is similar to that of Rocco, rather than the sometimes
darker voice type that has since come to be part of modern productions.

Some similar comparisons may be made with Felsenstein’s film of
Don Giovanni, which dates from 1966, a decade after
Fidelio. This is a filmed opera, rather than a feature film based on
the opera, and reflects a particular staging of Mozart’s opera.
Despite the colorful locations that are found in the libretto of this opera,
Felsenstein chose to use a more conventional stage production of Don
for this film. Even within such an artistic self-restriction,
Felsenstein brought his own genius to the result in a film that is as strong
dramatically as it is musically. The acting itself stands apart from various
other stagings of the opera because of the director’s emphasis on
the interactions between characters that often suggest the intimacy of a
drama. Through his efforts in filming this opera, Felsenstein does not
minimize music in this film but rather intensifies it. The opening scene is
quite intense because it is suggests that work is opening in the middle of
action already set in motion, and as such the audience must determine what
has happened in order to understanding what is occurring on stage. With the
interaction between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore, the fight starts as
something in which the Don has engaged before, and he is noticeably surprised
when his parry wounds the older man fatally. The shots of Don
Giovanni’s facial expression are particularly effective and, at a
time when opera on film most often trained cameras toward a stage, reveal the
multiple cameras Felsenstein used to create his finely honed result.

Even though it involved the traditional stage, Felsenstein used the camera
to take the audience beyond the footlights through the angles and viewpoints
that move inside the work. In the mid- 1960s, when Felsenstein made this
film, televised opera usually involved long shots of the stage, and if the
close-ups occurred, they sometimes shows imperfections in the faces of the
singer. This is not the case in this effort, which resembles more a feature
film. In the title role, Gyˆrgy Melis offers a convincing characterization
through his singing and acting, which has a parallel in the casting of Anny
Schlemm in the role of Donna Elvira. As with other successful productions of
this opera, those two principals work well together, but they are not alone,
as the ensembles help to shape Felsenstein’s conception of Don
Through the lens, he made this work come alive to reveal the
various personal relationships at the core of the quintessential tragicomedy
by Mozart.

While these two films, among several others, are in black and white,
Felsenstein also used color for several operas. Verdi’s
Othello, which he released in 1969, just a few years after Don
, is characterized by the bold colors that help to define the
work. Filmed on a studio stage, like Don Giovanni, Othello
benefits from multiple camera that allow for a variety of camera angles.
Felsenstein created a powerful effect in the opening scene of
Othello, which include some well-placed close-ups that bring out the
tension in the scene not only through their facial expressions, but because
they delay the entrance of the title character. In Felsenstein’s
hand, the interplay between Iago and Rodrigo is also more intense because the
audience is not viewing their exchange a distance from the stage. Rather, the
visual proximity underscores the drama and, as a result, intensifies the
music. This production is reminiscent of a quite intense presentation of
Verdi’s Macbeth a decade later at the Deutsche Oper
Berlin, which brought out the interplay between the principals in a similar
way. Yet Felsenstein’s film of Othello benefits from the
perspective of the camera that guides the viewer into the
director’s vision of the work.

In a similar way the latest opera in the set, the one of
Mozart’s Hochzeit des Figaro, shows Felsenstein making the
most of the stage in a production which benefits from a sensitive combination
of traditional and post-modern elements. As with other operas, like Don
, Felsenstein shows the conductor and the orchestra in the pit
for Die Hochzeit des Figaro, and this reminds the viewer of the live
quality of the film. This lens takes the viewer closer into a nicely detailed
production that could not be appreciated as well from the distance of a seat
in the audience. Yet as the production moves along, the somewhat elaborate
sets open up to a more representational set. Where Susanna and
Figaro’s opening scene was set in an appointed room, the walls open
us in later scenes, to allow the actors to move more freely on the stage, as
occurs in the same act, when Cherubino hides in Susanna’s room. Yet
in the second act, Felsenstein used a single wall to suggest the larger
structure in which the performers interact, and this effect, while subtle,
also allows the score to emerge clearly and serve to propel the drama.

Such an effect is wholly in Felsenstein’s aesthetic. The
comments of Jens Neubert, quoted in the booklet that accompanies the DVD set,
are particularly apt: “In his opera films Walter Felsenstein aimed
to establish singing and the singing performer as a natural phenomenon who
should never appear strange in the eyes of the audience. . . . With his opera
films he intended to create a new popular genre by suing the experimental
tools of his time in his theatrical-interpretation.” In many ways
Felsenstein succeeded in ways that are still finding their way into modern
broadcasts of opera. The use of the camera on stage is an element that
Felsenstein used to bring the audience into the drama, and it introduces a
sense of intimacy that is not always possible on stage, even though it is
implicit in the score. The camera angles that Felsenstein used made the
exchanges between the characters realistic without introducing details not in
the score, which occur in some of the re-thought conceptions of opera that
have been produced in recent decades. In this sense Felsenstein deserves
attention for the way he enlivened as familiar a work as Don
without resorting to artifice, and those unfamiliar with his
work might want to start with this opera.

One of the surprising films in this set is Felsenstein’s film of
Jan·cek’s Cunning Little Vixen, which dates from
1965. Through his use of oversized sets, including some impressively enormous
plants, he created images that fit the work aptly. More than that, the acting
conveys the animal world well, with the title character embodying the
characteristics of the fox, yet sometimes moving into the human world, as
found in the close-ups of her face and eyes. Possible only in film, the
images sometimes blur from the costumed animal characters to human ones, with
smooth visual transformations fitting the transitions in the score. A
difficult opera to find on DVD, this black-and-white production from the
mid-1960s is engaging and shows Felsenstein at one of his most imagination

In a similar way, the charming production of Offenbach’s
Contes d’Hoffmann in German as Die Erz‰hlungen von
, which was released in 1970 is an inspired conception of the
opera. Within the framework that Felsenstein conceived for this production,
the work holds together well, not only through his characterization of
Niklaus, but through the vivid images that are part of each scene. The
meticulously decorated sets used in this opera well in this film, which is
restored well and reflects the details quite clearly. The tenor Hanns Nocker who plays Hoffmann stands out for the ease with which he has projected his character and the corresponding musical line.

Part of Felsenstein’s success also resides in his use of the
vernacular, with German as the language of each of the films. Those familiar
with Italian for Mozart’s Da-Ponte operas and Verdi’s
Othello and French for Offenbach, especially the well-known
Contes d’Hoffmann, may find this initially jarring, but
each cast delivers the text facilely. In some ways the sung translation of
The Cunning Little Vixen makes the work more accessible for those
who may be more familiar with German than Czech. Nevertheless, the DVDs
include subtitles for each work in English, French, Spanish, and, of course,

In presenting these seven films in this convenient set, the Felsenstein
Archive also makes available background material and some historic footage.
The second disc of Othello includes a presentation of
Felsenstein’s working notes, as well as an interview with the
director. With Ritter Blaubart, the materials move logically from text to
graphics and, eventually, to footages of a rehearsal of the staged version of
that work. Materials like these are found throughout the set, and also
include some historic films from Pariser-Leben (1945); Die
(1947); Die Kluge (1948); Orpheus in der
(1948); and Carmen (1949). Such materials augment the
solid information found in the detailed booklets that are included with each

This set not only preserves the groundbreaking work of Walter Felsenstein
in filming opera, but also makes it available dynamically through the medium
of DVD. The restoration involved with the creation of this set, an element
documented in the accompanying materials, contributes to the overall effect.
With the availability of this set, those interested in opera film have a
resource that is essential to understand the technical and artistic
accomplishments of one of its more creative artists. Arthaus has done a fine
service to opera by making these films available a such of such fine quality
and thoughtful presentation.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Walter Felsenstein Edition (Komische Oper, 1956-76)
product_title=Walter Felsenstein Edition (Komische Oper, 1956-76)

Beethoven: Fidelio (1956)
Jan·?ek: The Cunning Little Vixen (1965)
Mozart: Don Giovanni (1966)
Verdi: Otello (1969)
Offenbach: Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) (1970)
Offenbach: Barbe-bleu (Bluebeard) (1973)
Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) (1975-76)
product_by=Performers: Magda L·szlÛ, Kurt Equiluz, Richard Holm, Heinz Rehfufl, Sonja Schˆner, Georg Wieter, Ruth Schob-Lipka, Irmgard Arnold, Christel Oelhmann, Werner Enders, Rudolf Asmus, Herbert Rossler, Anny Schlemm, Eva Maria Baum, Klara Barlow, Fritz H¸bner, Gyˆrgy Melis, Hanna Schmoock, Peter Seufert, Hans-Otto Rogge, Hans G¸nther Nˆcker, Vladimir Bauer, Erich Blasberg, Uwe Kreyssig, Alfred Wroblewski, Melitta Muszely, Sylvia Kuziemski, Horst-Dieter Kaschel, Heinz Kogel, Ingrid Czerny, Helmut Polze, Ute Trekel-Burckhardt, Barbara Sternberger, JÛzsef Dene, Helmut Volker, Magdalena Falewicz, Ursula Reinhardt-Kiss.

Conductors: Fritz Lehmann, V·clav Neumann, Zden?k Koöler, Kurt Masur, Karl-Fritz Voigtmann, and GÈza Oberfrank.

Orchestras: Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra.
product_id=Arthaus Musik 101305 [12 DVDs]