Offenbach Bluebeard (Ritter Blaubart) 2-DVDs (1973 film)
Composer: Jacques Offenbach
This is a motion picture by the legendary theater director Walter Felsenstein of Offenbach's Barbe-bleue ("Bluebeard") in German. First produced on stage by Felsenstein and the Komische Oper Berlin in 1963, it proved so popular that the East German government used it as a cultural export. Ritter Blaubart, as it was known, traveled around the world, and was eventually performed 369 times before it was retired. Nine years after it was launched, and 163 performances into its life, Felsenstein took up the task of converting it from stage to film. It wasn't to prove easy, as the director wanted fresh, creative solutions to problems brought on by the change of medium. He was ultimately pleased with the result, however, and it certainly has all the hallmarks of a professionally directed motion picture rather than an awkward attempt at one. In fact, the opening sequence--an exceptionally long and accomplished tracking shot created as a prelude to the operetta, purportedly showing a busy backstage filled with technicians before the staging of Ritter Blaubart--could easily be an homage to the late Max Ophuls, the great French film director, whose signature tracking shots and mix of wit with worldly cynicism were well known.
The operetta grows into the film. The pastoral first act is obviously and deliberately stagy, poking fun at the shepherds and shepherdesses of countless French operas since the early days of 18th-century opéra comique. By the second act, with its dungeon beneath Bluebeard's castle and Bobèche's royal throne room, we are fully immersed in realistic settings, even if they are obviously part of the parody world emphasizing typical Offenbach themes: mindless aristocratic protocol, court servility, cuckolded husbands, etc. The sudden pullback of the camera into the stage world just before the finale in act III, when the heroine declares bitterly that if the King and Bluebeard had actually committed the terrible crimes in real life they would have gotten away with them, because the rich and powerful always do--followed by the resolution to solve matters in true operetta fashion, with smiles and silliness, is handled brilliantly. It's also one of the very few times Felsenstein imposes a mordant, personal sensibility on Offenbach's musical soufflé. Elsewhere, he adheres to the spirit of the work and its time, even when he gets his musical staff to turn a piece of lengthy dialogue into a melodrama using themes from the opera. The casting is excellent. If neither of the two female leads catches the slim, agile tone so much a part of the French light lyric soprano tradition (with Marthe Angelici and Suzanne Danco as good examples), both are fine singers, and Anny Schlemm is magnificently confident both acting and singing Boulotte. Hanns Nocker is a delight as Bluebeard, his well-produced heroic tenor surprisingly nimble, as French tenors of the 19th century were expected to be. Like the rest of the cast, he is also adept at comedy, though for most viewers the center of comic attention will be the tenuously sane King Bobèche of Werner Enders. A fine tenor, Enders has little to sing here, but creates a wonderful parody of a dictator that Mel Brooks, if he took his creative attention off Hitler for a while, would surely appreciate. Polze is Lubitsch-like suavity itself as Count Oscar, and the lovers, played by Czerny and Hopp, are suitably lyrical and saccharine. Only Rudolf Asmus seems slightly subdued, but that was no doubt how Felsenstein wanted Popolani played, presumably as a foil to Nocker's histrionics. The Komische Oper Berlin chorus and orchestra are suitably bright and effective. The film format is 4:1, with PCM stereo available. Sound and image are surprisingly good, with little of the wear or artifacts one might expect from a film of this vintage. Colors show trace shifts towards green in some of act II, but not sufficient to draw notice if one isn't looking for it. Subtitles are available in English, German, French, and Spanish. For once, we're offered a full DVD's worth of special features, and they're good. There are two interviews of Felsenstein at the time Ritter Blaubart was first staged and then filmed, as well as script segments, sketches, drafts, and performance segments (these last, filmed from the stage for directorial evaluation). They provide some fascinating insights into Felsenstein's creative process and his views of the operetta. At the current time there are several staged Offenbach operettas transferred to DVD. However, this particular one, recorded in German more than 35 years ago, remains among the best for its inventiveness, singing, appropriate sense of style, and ability to capture the satirical edge of the original. Highly recommended. -- Fanfare, Barry Brenesal, Jan-Feb 2010
Walter Felsenstein (1901 1975), founder and general director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, was one of the twentieth century's greatest
creative theatre directors, who played a hugely important role in the revival of opera as a theatrical art form. A brilliant artist who directed over 190 productions during the course of his career, he was equally committed to the works, their creators, the ensemble and the audience.
After 163 performances Felsenstein decided to make a film version of Ritter Blaubart. This film can now be enjoyed in a carefully restored digital
form. Felsenstein's forceful work on the musical and visual language of the opera fi lm continues to influence other productions creatively.
Felsenstein's Ritter Blaubart is accompanied by the music of French composer Jaques Offenbach and was performed to great critical acclaim in Paris in 1866. Opera reviewer Oscar Bie delightfully remarked: 'How the music flourishes in soil like this. How the tragedy laughs, and how seriously the comedy takes itself. [...] This is not opera, nor is it comedy, and only on occasions is it parody. No, this is something much more sublime altogether: it is that wonderfully shimmering
realm, full of truth about life, which borders grand fates and all-conquering humour.' Felsenstein's adaptation of this diversified opera affords countless opportunities for audiences to make associations, moments in which they are torn between laughter and abomination, but which all the while reveals an aptitude of theatrical magic one could only admire. The constant switching between comedy and tragedy is a fine balancing act that demands enormous self-discipline and ability from the performers. Felsenstein himself spoke of the 'entirely new style of interpretation' the work required. This visionary theatre director, who played a hugely important role in the revival of opera as a theatrical art form, was exactly what this demanding opera needed.
Special Features on DVD: Script segments, sketches and drafts & performance segments, interviews, picture gallery.