Deutsche Oper Berlin: 1961-1967
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio, Op.72b [124.00]
Christa Ludwig (mezzo: Leonora), James King (tenor: Florestan), Walter Berry (baritone: Pizarro), Josef Greindl (bass: Rocco), Lisa Otto (soprano: Marzelline), Martin Vantin (tenor: Jacquino), William Dooley (baritone: Minister), Barry McDaniel (baritone: 1st prisoner), Manfred Röhrl (tenor: 2nd prisoner), Artur Rother (conductor)
rec. Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1963
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlos (1867-8) [155.00]
James King (tenor: Carlos), Pilar Lorengar (soprano: Elisabeth), Josef Greindl (bass: Philip), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone: Posa), Patricia Johnson (mezzo: Eboli), Martti Talvela (bass: Inquisitor), Ivan Sardi (bass: Monk), Barbara Vogel (soprano: Tebaldo), Günther Treptow (tenor: Lerma), Lisa Otto (soprano: Voice from Heaven), Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)
rec. Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1965
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni, K527 [176.00, 2 DVDs]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone: Giovanni), Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano: Anna), Pilar Lorengar (soprano: Elvira), Walter Berry (bass: Leporello), Donald Grobe (tenor: Ottavio), Josef Greindl (bass: Commendatore), Ivan Sardi (bass: Masetto), Erika Köth (soprano: Zerlina), Ferenc Fricsay (conductor)
rec. Deutsche Oper Berlin, 24 September 1961
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello (1887) [150.00]
Hans Beirer (tenor: Otello), Renata Tebaldi (soprano: Desdemona), William Dooley (baritone: Iago), Mario Ferrara (tenor: Cassio), Karl-Ernst Mercker (Rodrigo), Sieglinde Wagner (mezzo: Emilia), Ivan Sardi (bass: Lodovico), Pecca Salomaa (bass: Montano), Hans-Dietrich Pohl (baritone: Herald), Giuseppe Patanè (conductor)
rec. Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1962
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801)
Il matrimonio segreto (1792) [123.00]
Erika Köth (soprano: Carolina), Lisa Otto (soprano: Elisetta), Donald Grobe (tenor: Paolino), Josef Greindl (bass: Geronimo), Patricia Johnson (mezzo: Fidalma), Barry McDaniel (baritone: Count), Lorin Maazel (conductor)
rec. Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1967
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107522 [6 DVDs, timings as above]
If only British television had been as pro-active as German television in the 1960s, we might have had video recordings of such productions as the complete Callas and Gobbi Tosca instead of the miserable Act Two that we do have, even if only in black-and-white and mono sound. As it is one can only commend the German television companies for making the recordings we have here; they may be mono (in both senses of the word) but both sound and picture are exceptionally fine for the era, well re-mastered, and they enshrine some memorable performances. Having said that, all of them are given at least partially, but more of that later, in German; and, for all but one of the operas here, that means in German translation. As such they may have limited appeal, but they can claim the attention of more than just German-speaking listeners. All have previously been available as single issues, but they are now collected as a sample of the work of the Deutsche Opera during the 1960s. However, as in all such collections, some parts are better than others, and potential purchasers may elect to pick and choose.
The one work here which is given throughout in the original language is Fidelio, and it is perhaps unfortunate that this is the only recording which has a rival in the DVD catalogues with the same company and in a filmed adaptation of the same production by Gustav Rudolf Sellner – but made in colour in 1970. That DVD also features the same Florestan, Rocco and the two Prisoners. There are a considerable number of differences in detail, although the casting is also a matter of swings and roundabouts. In the earlier performance James King is in fresher voice, and looks more convincingly half-starved, but in the later performance he has added many subtle points of detail to his interpretation. Gwyneth Jones in the later version is very good (she was at the height of her form at this period), but Christa Ludwig in this black-and-white production is even better, singing and acting as if possessed and never fazed by the difficulties of Beethoven’s writing. Gustav Neidlinger in 1970 is more obviously villainous than Walter Berry in 1963, but the latter has a more beautiful voice and conveys many hints of a more rounded character with hidden character flaws (despite eye make-up that would have done credit to Dusty Springfield). William Dooley is a baritone rather than the more usual bass (Martti Talvela took the part in 1970) but it is surely dramatically right that the minister, a friend of Florestan and Leonora, should sound younger rather than older, and he portrays a properly civilised character. Martin Vantin, generally a comprimario tenor consigned to character parts, displays a nicely Mozartian line as the hapless Jacquino; but Lisa Otto seems to have been having an off day at the time of this recording. She is surprisingly ungainly in her faster semi-coloratura passages, and she sounds distinctly uneasy at the beginning of the great quartet, which disturbs the atmosphere at that point, although Josef Greindl’s sour tones as Rocco don’t help.
It is a pity that Greindl could not have been replaced as Rocco in 1970 as well. He had a major career in Germany for many years, but his voice never sounded pleasant; it had a hard ebony tone which suited villainous roles such as Hagen, but even then his top notes were often strained and his tuning could often be suspect as well. He also carried on singing for far too long, and the faults that were evident even in his early performances got worse with time. He appears in all the productions in this box with the exception of the Otello, and his contributions are invariably a trial; he also over-acts in a decidedly hammy fashion which accords badly with the more restrained approach of the other members of the cast. He is better as Rocco in 1970 with a firmer directorial hand and closer control of camera angles.
Artur Rother conducts a vigorous and exciting performance, not without expression, and clearly understands well how the music should go. He is rather let down by some unsteady horn playing in Leonora’s aria, but the oboist – the symbol of Florestan’s deliverance – deserves praise for his beautifully rounded inflections both in Florestan’s aria and in the finale. The balance between singers and orchestra is very good, much better than in 1970 where Karl Böhm’s conducting also sounds decidedly lacklustre by the side of Rother’s. The performance here was apparently recorded especially for television. There are a couple of rather obvious edits, and no applause at the end of Acts, although there is plenty of coughing from an invisible audience, especially during the opening of Act Two.
There cannot really be an enormous amount of objection to performing Don Carlos in German – it was after all based on a Schiller play – and the German translation we are given here is considerably better than the workaday Italian translation of Verdi’s original French text with which we are usually afflicted. Some of the principal singers, not all of whom are native German speakers, handle the words better than others. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is obviously the best, although there are moments when he seems to forget he is singing Verdi and indulges himself in some Sprechstimme passages. Greindl, a purely villainous Philip grimacing with overdone menace, is the worst, and his lip-sync (the performance was clearly pre-recorded for television, with the singers miming to their own soundtrack) is sometimes laughably inaccurate. In his big aria he lacks the resonant and solid high notes that are essential for this role, and in the following scene with the Grand Inquisitor he is comprehensively outsung by Martti Talvela. James King is excellent in the title role, although his miming is also sometimes unconvincing; he has a ringing tenor which he uses to the best effect and his characterisation is good too. Patricia Johnson, some squally top notes aside, is a characterful Eboli. Pilar Lorengar has the most authentic Verdian line of any of the principals, and her performance of her last Act aria is the best single section of the whole. It is interesting to hear Günther Treptow, once a celebrated heldentenor, in the extremely small part of Lerma; he makes the most noise of anyone on stage.
The score is given in Verdi’s later four-act version, but is then subjected to even further cuts – we lose not only the whole of the First Act but chunks out of the others too. Over an hour of music goes missing from the original score, although we are rightly given the sometimes-omitted Insurrection Scene which follows the death of Posa. As a recording of Don Carlos for a video collection, this could therefore hardly be a first choice; and the rather dour sets, not helped by being seen in monochrome, are not a patch on those of similar vintage to be seen on the Covent Garden DVD of the old Visconti production. On the other hand we are not made to suffer any directorial ‘glosses’ and ‘re-interpretations’, which some may count a blessing; and the acting of most of the principals is natural and believable – Fischer-Dieskau is a properly impassioned Posa, making his political ideals clearly visible through his almost fanatically possessed eyes (which the cameras let us see clearly). There is one other major reservation, however. At the very end the appearance of Charles V is cut (together with the music that accompanies it), so that the opera ends with Carlos being taken into the custody of the Grand Inquisitor, presumably for execution. This may be closer to historical accuracy, and to Schiller’s frequently wildly inaccurate version of history which he gave us in his original play; but it is not the conclusion that Verdi wrote, and maintained throughout his series of revisions of the score. Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts what is left of the score with vigour and energy, although the chorus are sometimes a bit rough and are far too hearty to be convincing as monks at the beginning of this truncated version.
To perform Don Giovanni in German can also be defended. Mozart was after all a German-speaking composer writing for a German audience, and the work was being given performances in Mainz and Hamburg in German translation within two years of its Prague première - that is, during Mozart’s own lifetime. This recording for television was made, oddly enough, not at an actual performance but during the dress rehearsal – which must have been hard on the singers, unable to conserve their voices by ‘marking’ - that is, singing with less than full voice - during any particularly strenuous or difficult passages. However the dress rehearsal was clearly given in front of a pretty large audience, who annoyingly not only start clapping before arias have finished but also interrupt the Catalogue Aria with premature applause.
My Dover edition of the full score is a reprint of a scholarly German edition published originally in 1941 (of all years!) which has in fact the German text printed above the original Italian, but it is clear from his page turns during the overture that Ferenc Fricsay is employing a different edition, and indeed the German translation differs in a number of not very significant places. Fricsay had a reputation as the conductor who inaugurated ‘period’ practice in Mozart, adopting generally faster tempos than had hitherto been the custom and rounding out the ends of recitative phrases with appogiature. Here, while using the traditional large forces employed at the time, his speeds are indeed brisk, and his Presto for the Champagne aria leaves Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gasping to keep up; but by and large the singers cope well with what must at the time have been unexpectedly rapid passages.
The production by Carl Ebert is set in an uncomfortable mix of somewhat abstract sets - which probably looked much better in colour - and traditional period costumes which sometimes seem to get in the singers’ way and certainly limit their manoeuvrability on stage. Of these singers, Donald Grobe is probably the nearest in style to what we would nowadays recognise as a Mozartian norm, with Pilar Lorengar running him a close second. Elisabeth Grümmer (who had previously appeared in the 1954 film version conducted by Furtwängler) and Erika Köth are both chirpily bright without showing much expression; possibly they felt more hampered by Fricsay’s speeds. Fischer-Dieskau and Walter Berry, sounding uncannily alike - their exchange of costumes in the Second Act is uncommonly convincing - clearly bounce off each other in the recitatives and relish the German text. Fischer-Dieskau indeed presents a very charming villain, all smiles and false bonhomie; and he cuts a very persuasive figure on stage. Ivan Sardi is a rather dour Masetto; and Josef Greindl is fortunately restricted here to a limited number of appearances at the beginning and the end, when he casts a suitably funereal gloom over the proceedings although his high notes are strained rather than menacing.
The text which Fricsay employs is the usual conflation of Mozart’s Prague and Vienna versions of the scores, with both tenor arias and Donna Elvira’s final aria included but with the short duet between Zerlina and Leporello omitted. There are also two small cuts, of Donna Elvira’s recitative after the Catalogue aria and Don Ottavio’s recitative after Anna’s Non mi dir, well if cautiously sung by Grümmer. But these are hardly serious matters, and not to be compared with Furtwängler’s omission of Don Ottavio’s first aria in his 1954 film although he apparently included it in his original Salzburg staging. More questionable is the decision taken to banish the Commendatore’s lines in the graveyard scene to an offstage voice. Although Mozart did not specify this in his score, it has long been a tradition to have the accompaniment to these lines played by an offstage band; but it was never possibly Mozart’s intention to have the singer placed at such a disadvantage, which removes any sense of menace to the doom-laden words he utters. As the statue approaches during the final scene, Fricsay adds a bass drum - I think, although it might be timpani - and wind machine to Mozart’s score, which can perhaps be justified on dramatic grounds although Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell is extremely feebly staged; it is not at all clear what is actually meant to be happening here.
Although a case can be made for performing Don Carlos and Don Giovanni in German translation, it is hard to defend what we are given here in the form of a bi-lingual Otello. Apparently the Deutsche Opera were already performing the opera in German when they seized the chance to engage the justly celebrated Renata Tebaldi for the role of Desdemona. She understandably balked at the idea of singing one of her most famous roles in German, so it was agreed that the opera would be given in Italian; but it then transpired that the chorus did not have time to learn their parts in that language, so they continued to sing their parts in German. This sort of practice, once not uncommon, is nowadays rightly regarded as totally unacceptable. And so it is here. Moreover, apart from Tebaldi only one of the other singers in this cast is Italian, and it is perfectly clear that the rest would all have been much happier singing in the German text that presumably they knew well.
Not, one uneasily suspects, that hearing them sing their roles in German would have been much preferable. Hans Beirer was a workaday German heldentenor who sang Tannhäuser for Karajan’s only live recording of the work, but hardly deserved even that distinction. God knows one is often distressed by the sounds of beefed-up lyric tenors straining to achieve the requisite volume in Otello, but Beirer seems to come at the role from the opposite extreme. Even after her death he addresses Desdemona as if she were a public meeting, and when he does attempt to sing quietly he often drifts to the flat side of the note. His lack of rhythmic accuracy also suggests that he would prefer to be singing the role in German, and several times he finds himself at odds with Patanè in the pit.
The generally reliable William Dooley seems overparted as Iago. He never sounds in the least sinister, and looks at best like a nice boy gone slightly astray. When he seeks to put more pressure on his voice, a judder intrudes; and his attempt at a top A in his First Act drinking song is simply embarrassing. Tebaldi here gives a performance that sounds much like her Desdemona in Karajan’s more or less contemporary set for Decca; she occasionally phrases with more delicacy and freedom, but similarly there is a sense of strain in the more strenuous passages. The other Italian in the cast, Mario Ferrara, simply sounds strained all the time. The other roles are taken competently.
Giuseppe Patanè conducts with vigour and energy, although there are times when he is reduced to simply following his singers through their changes in tempo. However he condones two cuts in the score. The second of these, the removal of the interruption by the spectators at Otello’s suicide, reduces Niun mi tema to a simple solo aria without any dramatic interaction, which is bad enough. The first, even worse, is a massive truncation of the great Third Act concertato - Karajan made the same barbarous cut in his second recording for EMI - presumably made here to accommodate the inability of the chorus to sing in Italian. Verdi allowed for an abridgement of this passage in his French production of the opera in Paris – the result can be heard on Mark Elder’s English-language recording – but the cut made here is simply musically and dramatically unacceptable.
This DVD is a document of some historical interest for those interested in seeing Tebaldi perform one of her great roles – although she is no great shakes as an actress – but unfortunately, both because of the language problems and the cavalier manner in which Patanè has savaged the score, it cannot be regarded as a proper representation of Verdi’s great masterwork.
Il matrimonio segreto
If this production, billed in German as Das hausliche Ehe, is an example of the German approach in the 1960s to comic opera and bel canto, it is not a particularly good advertisement for the brand. Lorin Maazel hustles the orchestra along at a very fast pace from the very start, and the big-boned sound that he elicits from a substantial body of players sounds very old-fashioned nowadays. It also compels the singers to force their tone, simply in order to produce sufficient volume to ride over the storm that is emanating from the pit. As the two young girls, Erika Köth and Lisa Otto both sound hassled at times, and Köth’s vinegary tone is not always pleasant to hear. Both Donald Grobe and Josef Greindl deliver their lines in full-bodied dramatic tones, and both indulge in healthy amounts of aspiration to make their way around the coloratura passages. The most stylish of the singing comes from Patricia Johnson and Barry McDaniel, although the latter sounds unhappy in his lower register.
The singers cannot have been helped by an ultra-fussy production, with enormous amounts of stage ‘business’ to detract them from the not inconsiderable problems of getting round the notes. Although it is the most recent of these television broadcasts, the whole presentation seems to hark back to the bad old days when neither performers nor audiences were expected to take the purely musical demands of comic operatic scores with too much seriousness. The use of German here really detracts from the light bubbling sounds of the words which one expects. It is to be noted that even though the first performances of La matrimonio segreto were given in German-speaking Vienna, they were given in Cimarosa’s own native Italian; and the composer’s music is as closely allied to that language as is that of Rossini. Altogether this charming score needs more air, more light and shade, if it is to make its best effect.
Comparisons with alternative DVD versions, with the exception of the 1970 colour film of Fidelio from the same source, are not really on relevance here. These discs should be regarded primarily as a record of performances of historical interest, even if the monochrome colour and mono sound detract from their overall attractiveness. There are no productorial ‘concepts’ to get between the listener and the music, and the dramatic effects are by and large taken seriously. Gustav Rudolf Sellner, the director of most of these productions, has a number of original and sensible ideas, and the orchestral playing is very fine throughout. If there are swings and roundabouts here, the films deserve their resurrection and show the very fine ensemble that was working in Berlin in the 1960s. The camera angles vary, and obviously the performances that were staged specifically for television allow for more close-ups, but generally they are pointing where they are needed. Now, if only some of the London productions of that era had been recorded!
Paul Corfield Godfrey
One can only commend the German television companies for making the recordings we have here.
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