Tag Archives: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and ‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

While none of the aforementioned productions entirely short shift the composer’s context, ‘s 1975 The Magic Flute remains the proverbial yardstick by which all other film versions are measured. This is due to the director’s spiritually sagacious cinematic and musical aesthetics (he was an accomplished organist and musicologist, which super-conductor Herbert von Karajan sensed when he enviously wrote Bergman on seeing the film: “You direct as if you were a musician. You have a feeling for the rhythm, the musicality and pitch.”)

Bergman had unsuccessfully tried for years to mount a production of “The Magic Flute,” finally getting his chance in 1975 with a  television offer. He later said that making this film was the best experience of his career. His enthusiasm is contagious. Bergman worked with conductor Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the film fully gives the appearance of an actual live performance. It isn’t, and although the singers lip sync to their own prerecorded voices, few have complained about it in forty years. It is sung in Swedish instead of the usual German, but only the most constipated opera buffs (who may be among the bitchiest inhabitants of Earth) have objected.

“Real” movies of operas (the aforementioned Branagh production) employ actors to lip synch for the singers, which rarely works, because in opera, the drama is in the arias. From the outset, Bergman wanted young singers, as opposed to established opera stars or actors, feeling that this would convey a sensuous warmth and energy. His instincts proved astute. Heading the cast is Hakan Hagegard as the charming bird catcher Papageno. Josef Kostlinger is an ideal, square-jawed Tamino, and the aptly named Ulrik Cold exudes the right amount of perfected menace as the sorcerer Sarastro. Irma Uriila as Tamino’s object of affection, Pamina, alongside Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding as the Queen’s three ladies all capture the winsome quality of the composer’s characters. Elisabeth Erikson is the consummate Papagena (be prepared to utilize the repeat button for her duet with Papageno) and Birgit Nordin is a beautifully manipulative Queen of the Night.

Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist open on the “audience,” fluidly gliding over a sea of captivated faces, including Bergman’s young, cherubic daughter. Throughout the opera, Bergman repeatedly cuts away to her reaction (a few times too many). Still, rather than being a visual cue, prompting us to react likewise; we sense instead that she is participating in the dream with us.

Still from The Magic Flute (1978)With production design by Henny Normak (who also assisted Karen Erskine in costume design) and sets by Anna Lee-Hansen and Emilio Moliner, Bergman solves most of the problems with filmed opera. He emphasizes “The Magic Flute”‘s artificiality, wittily elevating us past the banality of hyperrealism. By utilizing the malleability of film as a medium, Bergman avoids the traps of limited action in the opera’s “real time,” employing inviting close-ups which, for once, are not gimmicky.

Admittedly, Shikaneder’s libretto is occasionally wayward. Bergman actually tightens the plot and quickens the pacing with his script, which parallels those Bergmanesque themes of human love as the authentic antidote to spiritual loneliness.

The result was overwhelming critical praise, which the late Pauline Kael summed up: “It is a blissful present, a model of how opera can be filmed.”

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

*This review is part of a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music.

La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini).  The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti.  Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees.  The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore.  Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero.  The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper.  The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore.  Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement.  Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate.  The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante.  Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well.  Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante.  Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms.  Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to  marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.

Still from M22: La Finta Giardiniera (2006)Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot?  As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music.  In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60’s flower children era).  Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production.  Primary colors abound.

The opening fight between Belfiore (John Mark Ainsley from Zaide) and Violante (Alexandra Reinprecht) is performed as a ballet in the opera’s overture (and done true to period—traditionalists, do not get your hopes up).  Dorrie and set designer Bernd Lepel replace the garden estate with a busy, 21st century superstore.  A black leather clad Ramiro (mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose) looks like an extra from Road Warrior (1981), while the two leads are still adorned in powdered wigs, making for whimsical contrast.  Veronique Gens’s Arminda could give Cruella de Ville competition and she delights in tormenting her poor Ramiro (Donose supplies meaty angst).  Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors (1986) shows up ( I kid you not), chomps down on both Belfiore and Violante, thus generating their “madness’—which takes place in a spider’s den with an arachnid that’s about as animated as Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955).  But, it’s all in good fun, even if a good thirty minutes of music has been excised, and if conductor Ivor Bolton and his orchestra don’t seem to have as much fun as Dorrie and company.

Dorrie wonderfully succeeds in elevating what could have been a lackluster event into a spirited Halloween-like Mozartean treat.

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA SEMPLICE, LO SPOSO DELUSO & LA OCA DEL CAIRO

This review is part of a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music.

Director Joachim Schlomer undertook what may have been the most ambitious project of the entire M22 Salzburg Mozart Festival in 2006.  Over the course of three evenings, Schlomer presented Odysseys (Irrfahrten).  Schlomer begins the first evening of his odyssey with an early Mozart opera, La finta semplice. This is the starting point of a challenging journey with the composer, as filtered through Schlomer’s vision.

In 1769 the twelve year old Mozart composed his three-act opera buffa La finta semplice (The Pretend Simpleton) to a libretto by poet Marco Coltellini, which was in turn based off of Carlo Goldoni’s comedy.  It is one of the most appetizing of Mozart’s early operas.

Captain Fracasso and his sergeant Simone are stationed at the home of two wealthy, foolhardy brothers: Don Cassandro and Don Polidoro. Cassandro and Polidoro have a sister, Giacinta, with whom Fracasso is smitten.  Simone is chasing after the maid, Ninetta. Cassandro, a notorious misogynist, is continually at odds with his womanizing brother.  Fracasso’s sister, Rosina, arrives to help her brother and, with Ninetta’s Continue reading M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA SEMPLICE, LO SPOSO DELUSO & LA OCA DEL CAIRO

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE & ASCANIO IN ALBA

* This review is part of a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music.

Here are two operas composed by a fifteen- year- old Mozart. He composed the first, the dramatic serenade Il sogno di Scipione (The Dream of Scipione), for his patron the Archbishop Colloredo (with whom he later had a famous falling out with).  The music is set to Pietro Metastasio’s allegorical libretto.  The Roman commander Scopione must choose between Fortune (the goddess of earthly pleasure) and Constancy (the goddess of moral virtue).  Unable to make up his mind, Scipione presses questions in a series of existential passages.  He discovers he is in the temple of heaven.  He moves from the Elysian Fields to Elysium, where he meets the spirits of his father, Aemillius, and grandfather, Pubilius.  They advise him that duty is above all and diligence will be rewarded with beautiful dwellings.  Skeptical of mere luck, Scipione chooses the virtue of Constancy and invokes Fortune’s wrath, manifested in a great storm.  Scopione endures the elements but awakens to find the test was a dream.  Licenza praises Scopione for his steadfastness.

Still from M22: Il Sogno di Scipione (2006)Director Michael Sturminger, Blagoj Nacoski as Scipione, Louise Friba as Constancy and Bernarda Bobro as Fortune flesh out the composer’s conflicting priorities in a Buñuel-esque reverie. With Mozart’s later Giovanni, familiarity breeds contempt.  Scipione is Giovanni’s alter ego.  He finds refuge and passion within Constancy’s joy in repetition.  Constancy, coming off, at first, as a June Cleaver type, even has children here, yet she, like Buñuel’s suburban Severine, is also erotically unhinged.
Continue reading M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE & ASCANIO IN ALBA

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): ZAIDE. ADAMA

This review is part of a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music

Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.].  Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.”  The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine.  Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim.  Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath.  Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death.  Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears.  Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note.  Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically.  Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz.   The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.

Still from Zaide/Adama (2006)For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project.  During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms.  It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years.  His late works (such as the Symphony in G Continue reading M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): ZAIDE. ADAMA

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): DON GIOVANNI

* This review is part of a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music

Don Giovianni, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s 1787 dramma giosco,” became a favorite of the Romantics and it has been in the repertoire ever since.  The Don Juan narrative serves as as Mozartian self-portrait, for the composer knew of what he wrote.

Servant Leporello is waiting outside of Donna Annna’s house.  Anna is the daughter of the Commendatore.  Leporello’s masked master, Don Giovanni, has broken into the house to seduce Donna Anna.  However, Giovanni’s attempt is cut short when he’s confronted by the Commendatore.  A duel between the two men ends in the elder’s death. Anna does not know who the masked intruder was, but she makes Don Ottavio, her fiancee, swear revenge for the murder of the Commendatore.  Leporello and Giovanni move on to other conquests, namely Donna Elvira, who turns out to be one of Giovanni’s forgotten previous mistresses.  Still from Don Giovanni (M22) (2006)Barely evading the woman scorned (Elvira), Leporello and Giovanni move on to Zerlina.  Zerlina is engaged to Masetto, and Leporello is instructed to lure Masetto away.  Elvira, however, returns to level numerous accusations against Giovanni.  All of this is witnessed by Donna Anna, who now recognizes Giovanni as the voice of her father’s murderer.  Again, Anna passionately pleads with Ottavio to avenge her father.  At a masked ball, Giovanni attempts to rape Zerlina, but he is interrupted by the masked trio of Donna Elvira, Donna Continue reading M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): DON GIOVANNI

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LE NOZZE DE FIGARO

* This is the first in a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music.

In 1786, Le nozze di Figaro, the first of Mozart’s operas with librettist Fr. Lorenzo Da Ponte, premiered in Vienna. Contrary to legend, the opera was a considerable success, with a libretto pre-approved by emperor Joseph II.  Arguably, it is the greatest of Mozart’s operas, although some musicologists give that honorary title to Don Giovanni (also written with Da Ponte). Still, the overall consensus is that Figaro is not only Mozart’s greatest opera, but it may very well be the greatest opera to date by any composer of any time, period.

The opera was based off of Pierre Beaumarchais’ play (one of three Figaro plays), which had a well-earned reputation as subversive and revolutionary (Beaumarchais was also Voltaire’s publisher).  That Joseph II approved Da Ponte’s libretto was a little short of miraculous.  While the heavier political implications were removed from the text, the defiant, satirical tone ridiculing the aristocracy was, of course, the meat of the plot (the servants eventually best their autocratic master).  The opera, like the play, resonated with the masses. With that in mind, a non-revolutionary Figaro seems an oxymoron.

Still from Le Nozze de Figaro (M22) (2006)Over two hundred years later, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released on DVD, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date.  There is, of course, Peter Sellars’ mid-nineties version (which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower), but the line-up of the 2006 Continue reading M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LE NOZZE DE FIGARO