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Opera on Video: “Live” or Studio-made?

ART TIMES June 2007

Of the now countless video offerings of operas, most are “live” performances while an increasing number are made in a studio, usually with lip-synching. As each has an advantage over the other, I would like to give a few examples.

A video of a performance given before an audience means pretty much that you see what the audience saw, except for the close-ups and occasional camera effects that the audience could not have seen. You see the orchestra before each act, you hear the applause to greet them and to reward the singers after an aria or ensemble, and (in short) you share the experience with the audience.

Or do you? You are at home watching this video. You have no contact with that audience. In fact, they are part of the show, as it were, in dress and demeanor acting to no less a degree than the singers on stage. In a way, you are more aware of the production as a social event. Might one suggest a ritual?

Now, when watching a film you MIGHT think of the cameramen, the script person, the director, and all the crew that are not seen on the screen. You simply let yourself believe that Laurence Olivier IS Hamlet or Richard III, and you believe that all of this is “really” happening.


Here is a good case in point. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, 13 operas were filmed to be shown on German television. This was because of Rolf Liebermann, who built the Hamburg State Opera into a formidable organization. After a tour of North America, the film and TV company Polyphon decided to telecast versions of those operas based on productions already performed on stage in Hamburg. Joachim Hess was chosen to do the film adaptations.

The telecasts were a great success and have languished in vaults until quite recently when ArtHaus Musik was given the rights to make some of the films available on DVDs. The earlier films show some unfamiliarity with the art of lip-synching. That skill was quickly mastered and the later films seem to be done “live.”

The later releases so far include Lortzing’s “Zar und Zimmerman,” Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Von Weber’s “Der Freischutz,” Berg’s “Wozzeck,” Penderecki’s “Die Teufel von Loudun,” and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” More might have been added by the time this essay is printed.

Now for some comparisons.

I will take two videos of “Meistersinger” as an example. There is the spectacular version performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 2001. Here we have realistic sets, costumes appropriate to the time and place of the action, and a good cast. Ignoring the fact that the young Eva looked far too matronly in close-ups, it was an impressive production that left me somewhat uninvolved with the characters. I have never found this work particularly exciting once the overture is over and I look forward to the riot scene that ends Act II and the procession of the guilds in Act III.

Not too long after viewing that Deutsche Grammophon video, I saw the ArtHaus DVD. Here was a color studio-made version from 1970. Although the tenor was not exactly attractive and something of a wooden actor, I found myself very IN-volved indeed. Perhaps the acting was a bit more natural, perhaps the proximity of the camera let the cast ease up on projecting emotion to the top balconies. I don’t know. I simply feel I would like to see this version again in its entirety and the Met version only in parts.

The 1968 “Fidelio” from Hamburg is sensibly costumed in the correct period and  is far more effective than the updated costumes and settings offered in the Metropolitan Opera performance released on video in 2002; and again I find myself more in sympathy with the characters and their problems.

On the other hand, the film version of “Der Teufel von Loudon” contains far too much nudity and sadism to show on a stage. The latter is so realistically graphic that I had to stop watching it towards the end.

There is, of course, one major disadvantage to studio-made operas. Liebermann himself is quoted in the program notes to “Fidelio” pointing out that he realized after filming 6 of the 13 operas that “miming falsifies a singer’s facial expressions. A high B or C doesn’t ring true if the singer has a completely relaxed expression.” Indeed, in some operatic films non-singing actors are used to mouth the voices of less attractive opera singers. (Do you remember Sophia Loren as Aida?)

Another problem with films shows up in the “Wozzeck” video. The action is certainly earthy and the sets are “on location,” both of which features make it awkward to have the characters singing rather than speaking.

In sum, I have to conclude that there is a place for both “live” and studio-made videos—as long as they are intelligently directed by people who respect the work and do not want to build a reputation merely by outrageous settings and costumes.