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From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson, IFC.com
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) 2008, Royal Opera House
Opera Goes Blu, and So Should You
An Amateur's Guide to Mozart's Operas on Blu-ray
"Passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music… ."
Thus Mozart, explaining why he went from F to A minor rather than D minor.1 He made, I am sure, the right decision.
The Blu-ray DVD brings the opera house closer to your house than ever before. If you have a Blu-ray player, you've probably noticed that it's the sound rather than the picture the benefits the most, particularly if you've got any type of "theater" sound hookup. But new high-definition video equipment allows the reproduction of live performances that are far more realistic than what was previously available. The sensitivity of high-def to variations in lighting and other subtle phenomena gives high-def videos a far greater sense of depth to the picture, as though one were simply observing the singers through a window instead of watching a two-dimensional screen.
Putting the best first, if you are curious about Mozart on Blu-ray, I suggest you start with Opus Arte's presentation of the Glyndebourne 2006 production of Così Fan Tutti, the lightest of Mozart's great operas. This production is one of the few where the young lovers (two couples) actually look like young lovers, which I know is unfair to old people, but there it is. We are thankfully spared the horrors of postmodernism, which, because it cannot equal Mozart, at least tries to make him not look like himself, which is to say, ugly.2
Così Fan Tutti lacks the depth of Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, or Die Zauberflöte, giving us the genial but unsentimental sensuality of Baumarchais' Figaro rather than the spiritual transformation effected by Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, who also worked with Mozart on Cosi. Mozart and da Ponte approach the depth of tragedy in Fiordiligi's great aria "Per pieta, ben mio, perdona,"3 when she contemplates betraying her lover (and ultimately does so), but then toss away the tension they've created without any resolution. Così's clockwork, unlike Figaro's, can't handle the "terrible."
La Nozze di FigaroThe terrible and the beautiful are well on display in another Opus Arte disc, the Royal Opera's 2006 production of La Nozze di Figaro. I can't really say if this is the best production of Figaro that I've ever seen, because I don't keep track, but the Blu-ray production values, coupled with a first-rate performance, make this an easy winner.
I confess I haven't found a Blu-ray winner for what is generally regarded as Mozart's greatest opera, Don Giovanni. A recent Opera Australia disc is generally excellent, but for some reason they've deleted one of Leporello's briefer arias, saving a whole two and half minutes in the process. What's the point?
Still, Teddy Tahu Rhodes has won raves for his performance in the title role, making his entrance in black leather mask and undies and looking a bit like a refugee from the floor show at the Ramrod. All the recent productions of Don Giovanni hoke things up quite a bit in vaguely pomo fashion, and none of them have the splendor that I would like to see. "When I spend my money, I like to have a good time!" says the Don. What's wrong with that?4
A Blu-ray winner of Die Zauberflöte (aka The Magic Flute) is also hard to find. A 2008 Royal Opera House production has a lot going for it, including Dorothea Röschmann as a chubby but charming Pamina.5 However, the evil forces of pomo (they're everywhere!) came up with the idea of putting the Queen of the Night and her Ladies in some sort of bizarre, quasi-kabuki6 makeup so they don't look like women, which I fear may be the point. Furthermore, Monostatos is no longer black — no loss — but instead he's an icky 18th-century fop along the lines of Jon Lovitz' Evelyn Quince, and all his little imps are similarly arrayed.7 For my money, the best-staged Magic Flute remains Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film, which I reviewed here.
Die Entfuhrung aus dem SerailThe Blu-ray versions I've seen of Mozart's early "singspiel"8 The Abduction from the Seraglio/ Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail have all been pomo disasters. The Abduction (which should be translated as "The Escape," because Constanze wants to get away with Belmonte) has a clunky plot with unattractive lyrics. Furthermore, the Pasha, for whatever reason, has been given a non-singing part, so there's lots of talk, which could be cut, but, for some reason, no one is willing to do so. However, the music is beautiful, and, for a climax, either Mozart or his librettist, Gottlieb Stephanie, came up with the brilliant idea of having the Muslim Pasha Zelim give the Christian folks a lesson in charity by granting them their freedom.9 "That which is not freely given is not worth having," he tells Osmin, the blustering overseer deprived of his "slave" Blonde.
When I get beyond Mozart in opera I get lost. Wagner can be overwhelming — try Das Reingold, Die Walkure, or the first half of Siegfried — but he took himself with infinite seriousness, which is not an attractive trait in an artist.10 Verdi's Otello is supposed to be one of the greatest of the 19th-century operas, but I found it to be no Shakespeare. There are lots of sites discussing opera, but none of them strike me as authoritative. The sites I linked to in earlier reviews are no longer functional. Reviewers at Amazon will give you lots of informed and impassioned discussion, but unanimity is lacking. Opera buffs revel in the subjective.
Afterwords
Opera will always be an acquired taste, but Blu-ray makes it easier to acquire than ever. In addition, movie theaters are now showing high-def broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions. (Click here for this season's schedule.) Or you could just go crazy and attend a live performance yourself.
Notes

1. He went to A minor because he wanted to move away from F, but not too far. D minor would have been too close.

2. One can feel (some) sympathy for Europeans, Germans in particular, who have the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart crammed down their throats from an early age. But irritation seldom leads to art.

3. Miah Persson's rendition of this aria in the Glyndebourne production generates the greatest outburst of applause I've ever heard in an opera.

4. I gave thumbs up to an earlier, non-Blu-ray Don Giovanni DVD here.

5. "A little plump," as Cindy, my 99-pound girlfriend, liked to say.

6. "Kabuki" as filtered through a thousand western preconceptions and misconceptions of Japanese culture.

7. Emanuel Schikaneder's plot of Die Zauberflöte is by turns farcical, childlike, and divinely uplifting, but it's also frequently sexist and racist. The guy wasn't perfect.

8. A singspiel, or "singing play," has spoken dialogue rather than the sung recitative of a true opera.

9. Stephanie "borrowed" heavily from another play with the exact same title. However, in the original, Belmonte and Constanze escape because the Pasha turns out to be Belmonte's father!

10. Furthermore, no composer invites over-the-top staging like Wagner. Excessive himself, he is the source of excess in others. Of course, if opera companies were given new works worth staging, they wouldn't have to try so hard to be "innovative," but that doesn't seem to be happening.

February 2013 | Issue 79

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