Tag Archives: Opera

CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

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DIRECTED BY: , Emeric Pressburger

FEATURING: Robert Rounseville, Robert Helpmann, Pamela Brown, Moria Shearer, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars

PLOT: During the intermission of a ballet, the poet Hoffman tells a drinking party stories of three women whom he has loved and lost: an automaton, a courtesan, and an ailing singer.

Still from Tales of Hoffman (1951)

COMMENTS: Hoffman is a layer-cake of high art contributions: starting with Jacques Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffman,” edited and altered to fit the running time and the producer’s fancies, with the libretto translated into English for the first time, adding an entirely new ballet scene and requiring extensive choreography for the rest of the acts, staged on lavish sets designed by unsung hero Hein Heckroth, and ultimately delivered through the medium of cinema and a magical camera. Offenbach’s final opus, completed only months before the composer’s death in 1819, seems an unlikely candidate for the most lavish cinematic opera ever filmed. Unlike the major works of Wagner, Mozart, or Bizet, it contains no well-known arias or overtures. What it does offer is a number of evocative scene-changes through a variety of romantic locales, which was what likely attracted and Emeric Pressburger (known, together with their customary production team, as “the Archers”) to the project.

Robert Rounseville makes for a bland Hoffmann; he was cast primarily because he played the part on stage, but in his defense he was one of the only actors to sing his own part (most were dubbed and performed while lip-syncing). Lithe ballerina Moria Shearer (from The Red Shoes) takes the spotlight for two top-notch dances, as the sinuous female dragonfly in the opening ballet and in a comic mode as the stiff automaton. With his expressive eyes and even more expressive eyebrows, Robert Helpmann snakes through the stories (and steals every scene) as Hoffman’s eternally recurring Satanic antagonist; a former dancer and choreographer, he performs no grand jeté‘s here, but always moves purposefully and gracefully. It’s fair to say he is the film’s onscreen star: usually, the actors are hardly more significant than the custom-built marionettes.

The sets, dances, wardrobes, and optics drive the experience, not the actors or narrative. Hoffman tours four major settings—the lily pad lake where the dragonflies perform their mating dance; the workshop of the automaton-maker, peopled with marionettes; the decadent Venice of courtesans; the classical marble halls of the singer’s villa on a remote Greek island—in addition to several minor sets (like the beer hall). Each has its own dominant color scheme: green for the dragonflies, yellow for the living dolls, red for the gondolas and bordellos of Venice, and blue for the Greek island. The Continue reading CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

LIST CANDIDATE: AND THE SHIP SAILS ON (1983)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barbara Jefford

PLOT: Loaded with distinguished guests, a transatlantic luxury liner sets off at the dawn of WWI to bury the ashes of a deceased opera diva on the island where she was born.

Still from And the Ships Sails On (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may not be top-tier Fellini, but middle-tier Fellini still sails past most of the competition—at least, when the director sticks to his odder impulses and remembers to pack a pachyderm in his hold.

COMMENTS: As befits the film’s 1914 setting, And the Ship Sails On starts out as a silent film, showing a crowd of onlookers watching celebrities arriving to board a luxury liner, complete with slapstick pratfalls for the amusement of the children. The only soundtrack is the quiet whirring of a projector. Then, sparse background noises slowly creep into the sound mix, followed by the introduction of a piano score and sparse formal dialogue. The black and white fades into color, and in about ten minutes we move from what could have been vintage newsreel footage into a full-fledged late Fellini movie.

Besides the revered ashes of incomparable soprano Edmea Tetua, various musical dignitaries and well-wishers board the funeral ship, including Ildebranda, a diva whose insecurities are exposed by the praise lavished on a deceased woman whose fame she will never attain; and a trio of elderly choirmasters; an English aristocrat and his insatiable wife; a portly, baby-faced Prussian Grand Duke and his scheming retinue; a homosexual; a mysterious young beauty; a rhinoceros; and a dozen-plus others. They are all introduced and commented on by Orlando, a journalist who’s documenting the voyage and who often speaks directly to the audience. Later on, rafts of Serbian refugees fleeing the onset of World War I will board to swell the onboard throng. Along the way, the passengers will play a wineglass symphonetta, stage an impromptu vocal competition in the boiler room, attend a seance, and (temporarily) face down an Austro-Hungarian battleship (or, at least, a Hasbro model of a warship).

The Fellini film And the Ship Sails On most resembles is Amarcord, in its choice to focus on a community instead of a central character and on a collection of vignettes instead of a single story. Unlike the classic of the previous decade, this one is not anchored by the director’s nostalgia and love for his subject. The destination is fixed—the passengers will eventually end up spreading Edmea Tetua’s ashes into the Mediterranean—but seldom has a journey seemed so aimless; it’s a road trip movie without a road. It may be Fellini’s last “great” movie, and at the very least his last epic; but in many ways, it feels like the work of a young artist, playing promiscuously with different styles and ideas like he’s just trying things out, still figuring out what works. Sets and psychologies both change from realistic and detailed to artificial caricatures, and Fellini drops in postmodern distancing bits, like a character who remarks, “How marvelous! It looks fake!” while gazing at an obvious matte sunset. Maybe the maestro is just being playful as old age approaches; this is a movie whose takeaway point, after all, is praise for the salubrious properties of rhino milk.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At its best moments ‘And the Ship Sails On’ floats serenely above the realities of ordinary movies – not to deny the validity of those realities but to expand the imagination.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I., Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and  teamed up for Fantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Continue reading ARIA (1987)

THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano , a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal ((Although atonal, “Pierrot Lunaire” does not employ the twelve tone method.)), expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing). Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven. However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Still from Pierrot Lunaire (2002)The haunting lyrics are besotted with imagery of sick moons, flowing blood, brandished swords, gruesome communion, blue murder, bloodied crosses, ancient gloom, one-legged storks, coffins, and giant black butterflies ready for the kill. It’s hardly “La Boheme,” Continue reading THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

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.”

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Orton

FEATURING: David Soul, David Bedella, Leon Craig

PLOT: Jerry Springer hosts a typical episode of his show, in which the usual horrible people desperate for one moment of fame bare their sordid lives to the world. In the ensuing mayhem, Jerry is shot. He finds himself in Hell, where Satan makes him host a special edition of his show featuring Biblical characters—who are strangely similar to the guests in the first part—with the aim of being reconciled with Jesus and gaining admission to Heaven. So long as Jesus apologizes…

Still from Jerry Springer: The Opera (2005)

WHY IT’S WEIRD: It’s an opera about Jerry Springer! Tirades of incredibly foul abuse are sung with the utmost operatic seriousness. The KKK tap-dance. And then we find ourselves in Hell, where the holiest cultural icons in Christendom bicker like redneck trailer trash. “Les Mis” this ain’t!

COMMENTS: Technically, this isn’t a movie, it’s a stage musical. However, the version specially filmed by the BBC is available on DVD, so for our purposes, it’s a movie. And oh boy, is it weird! Most people can’t imagine David Soul in any context other than a certain long-past cop show. Well, if you’re one of them, his performance here may surprise you. As the only non-singing character, he makes a very convincing Jerry Springer, whether he’s ignoring the demands of his conscience (in the shape of an “Inner Valkyrie”), recounting the true story of the real Springer’s liaison with a prostitute, or spouting empty platitudes in a desperate attempt to solve all the world’s problems—-and more importantly, to avoid the torments of Hell, which, as the Devil constantly reminds him, include anal rape with barbed wire.

Another stand-out performance comes from David Bedella. Like everyone apart from David Soul, he isn’t really a movie actor, although parents of young children may know his voice from his performances as Victor and the Duke of Boxford in the US version of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” franchise. Which doesn’t mean you should let the kiddies watch this! There’s a staggering amount of very strong language indeed. David Bedella as the over-ambitious warm-up comic is responsible for quite a lot of it, especially in the second half, in which he really comes into his own as the Devil. In fact, he’s displaced Peter Cook in Bedazzled as my favorite movie Satan.

But it wasn’t profanity that caused a record-breaking 55,000 complaints received by the BBC, 47,000 of them before the show had even aired… or the protesters picketing the live production… or the unsuccessful lawsuits. It was the blasphemy. Technically (and as it turned out, legally) the show isn’t blasphemous. The second half obviously takes place in the head of the seriously wounded and delirious Jerry, which is why the celestial beings look and behave exactly like the people he’s just interviewed. And indeed why, in an interlude in Limbo, his guilty conscience causes him to imagine the accusing presence of guests who have died horribly as a result of appearing on the show we’ve just seen, although there hasn’t been time for this to happen yet.

Alas, religious maniacs have no imagination! It’s Leon Craig’s performance that caused most of the trouble. In Act I he’s hilarious as a man who gleefully reveals to his horrified fiancée that his secret sexual fetish involves dressing as a baby and pooping his pants. In Act II, he reappears as Jesus Christ (by the way, he’s a stout black man who in no way resembles the traditional Jesus), and portrays him as a well-meaning but naïve fellow who is ultimately very selfish. He also admits to being “a bit gay,” the line that caused at least half the fuss. Leon Craig sings very well and has a gift for comedy, but he doesn’t seem to have appeared in anything else since; perhaps being the focus of so much hatred scared him out of the profession.

In fact, this musical subverts religion more subtly by saying that none of us are all good or all bad, and by exploiting these desperate, damaged people, Jerry Springer is neither better nor worse than they are for letting him do it, or indeed we are for watching his show. And all concerned have a tremendous amount of foul-mouthed fun reaching this not terribly profound conclusion. Ironically, the one person genuinely entitled to be offended, Jerry Springer himself, actually liked it! Well, anyway, he said he did. But he can afford to be generous, given that, as the lyrics tell us, he’s:

“Bigger than David Letterman, bigger than Bob Hope;
And give or take a few million, bigger than the f***ing Pope!”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a foul-mouthed crowd-pleaser…”–Total Film

THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: CALIXTO BIEITO’S WOZZECK (2006)

Calixto Bieito’s 2006 staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” has reaped equal parts praise and damnation from critics and audiences.  It is a powerfully reprehensible staging of a powerfully reprehensible opera.

Wozzeck is a common solider, shaving his Captain.  The Captain chastises him for having fathered an illegitimate child with one Marie. Wozzeck defends his lack of virtue, explaining that he is too destitute to have the blessings of the Church, but Wozzeck reminds his superior of Christ’s words “suffer not the little children.” The Captain heaps even more abuse and scorn on Wozzeck, and the soldier becomes indignant.

Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks in a field as the sun sets.  Wozzeck tells Andres of horrifying visions and Andres unsuccessfully tries to offer Wozzeck reassurance.  Wozzeck visits The Doctor.  The Doctor scolds him for abandoning his diet. The Doctor, who is obviously insane, is delighted, however, when Wozzeck tells him of the violent visions he has been having.  Meanwhile, Marie notices the regiment’s Drum Major, and the two begin an affair.  The Drum Major gives Marie earrings as he parts.  Feeling remorse for her infidelity, Marie sings her child a lullaby.

Wozzeck returns him and tells Marie of his hallucinations.  Marie is disturbed and the tension between the two of them escalates when Wozzeck notices Marie’s new earrings and begins to question her about them.  Wozzeck’s jealousy engulfs him, and he becomes wild with visions of blood.

The Captain and the Doctor are are engaged in conversation on the street.  The Doctor is giving the Captain a terminal diagnosis when they encounter Wozzeck.  The Doctor and the Captain mock Wozzeck, telling him of the affair between Marie and the Drum Major.  Wozzeck flees to a tavern where he discovers Marie and the Drum Major dancing.  The tavern idiot confronts Wozzeck, telling him ‘I smell blood,” which, naturally, sends Wozzeck into a frenzy.  In the barracks, Wozzeck gets into a fight with the Drum Major, who knocks Wozzeck down.

Later, Marie reads of the gospel account of the woman taken in adultery.  Overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, Marie joins Wozzeck for a walk in the forest.  A blood red moon rises as they are walking, and Wozzeck slashes Marie’s throat.  Wozzeck throws the knife away, and heads


Continue reading THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: CALIXTO BIEITO’S WOZZECK (2006)