Fox Trot

This was to be my last piece for Bloomberg. Theirs the loss.

If you were moved – nay, charmed, delighted, fascinated – by The Cunning Little Vixen at the Long Beach Opera last month, you’ve probably already discovered the excellent versions on DVD – the cute but satisfactory version in animation conducted by Kent Nagano, and the authoritative performance under the Janacek specialist Sir Charles Mackerras. There is one other, however – old, faded but magical. I saw it once on tape in the 1970s, when its creator brought it to a Boston audience at the invitation of Sarah Caldwell – and held us spellbound.  I never hoped to see it again. Now everybody can.

That is the production of Walter Felsenstein, the crown of his leadership of East Berlin’s Komische Oper, 1947-1971, when that company was reconstituted after WWII.  Seven of Felsenstein’s productions were filmed under his supervision, some remodeled from their stage versions, some filmed “straight.” All seven now come on DVD, in a box of twelve discs, marketed at the absurdly low price of $149. None of them represent “authentic” versions of the operas at hand; some are in black&white, only one of the seven (Fidelio)  is sung in its proper language, and that one is drastically cut (for the better). But there is a level of dramatic creativity here that is so fascinating, so worth your study and your ponder, that this handsomely produced Art-Haus box from our friends at Naxos cannot be dismissed. And in the case of the “drastically cut” Fidelio, which is furthermore played in fresh German air rather than on a stodgy stage set, I cannot see anyone going back to all that silly operetta stuff at the beginning of the original score, once we learn the essence of Beethoven’s true drama.

But it is the Vixen that really sells this set. Felsenstein moved his production from the opera house to East German TV studios, where he could have a free hand with the forest insects and animals, and with the yokels of the human story as well. The interaction among the species is simply fabulous in the literal sense; the wooing of the two foxes will take you to within earshot of Tristan. Rudolf Asmus, who sings the Forester, was one of the few notable stars of Felsenstein’s East German company; a few Americans had also slipped through the Curtain and show up in minor roles. Nobody in his company is less than competent; the once-famous Magda Laszlo is Fidelio’s Fidelio,  the voice-over for a handsome lad who actually looks the part.

The value in these performances cuts far deeper than vocal quality. What stands out above all in this Felsenstein repertory is the naturalness in the ensemble action: the way the characters in Mozart’s Figaro really seem to listen to one another; the sly insidiousness as Iago plays upon Otello’s mounting suspicions, the non-stop sequence of action, from soliloquy to rape to murder, in the first breathless moments of Don Giovanni. Two Offenbach operas – Hoffmann and Bluebeard – offer profound insights into the serious nature of human comedy.

These may not be the only DVD productions of these operas you’ll want to own. You may not want a German-sung Figaro, nor a Don Giovanni in black-and-white, as the only versions on your shelves. But there is the surpassing stagecraft at work in every one of these seven operas, and it rises to genius level in the Vixen. Ancient its sight and its sound may be, it is opera like nothing else you’ll ever see.

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