Il Matrimonio Segreto (in German)
Köth, Otto, P. Johnson; Grobe, McDaniel, Greindl; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Maazel. Production: Sellner. Arthaus Musik 101 625 (DVD), 123 mins., subtitled
When it was telecast in 1967, Gustav Rudolf Sellner’s staging of Il Matrimonio Segreto must have seemed tailor-made for television, thanks to an emphasis on intimate scale, fluid scene changes and tireless physical clowning. But in courting the new medium, Sellner also froze his production in time and place, reminding us that as operatic styles have changed, so have video and television; the year 1967 has rarely seemed so distant.
The use of black and white, and of a sung German translation, both appropriate enough on the small screen in their time, exaggerate the archaic feeling; movies by the 1960s had largely moved on to full color, major opera houses to original-language productions. Makeup seems overdone, especially the heavy, dark brows of the younger male performers, which suggest 1930s film stylistics (as do Filippo Sanjust’s naïvely stylized storybook sets and flamboyant costumes).
No doubt the production spoke to its time and place. This was, after all, a challenging decade for beleaguered West Berliners. The new, strip-mall-modernist home for the Deutsche Oper opened its doors in 1961, just six weeks after the overnight rise of the Berlin Wall, and while the company had its innovations (such as Moses und Aron), it emphasized familiar repertoire in theatrical but reassuring productions that may have been responding to a need for stability. Liner notes mention Lorin Maazel’s conducting of “fourteen premieres” in his six years with the company, but the examples cited —La Traviata, Tosca,the Ring — show a conservative bent.
Not cutting-edge like Felsenstein’s Berlin Comic Opera just over the Wall, or on a par with Bayreuth’s provocative stylizations, this Matrimonio Segreto was solidly Establishment, uniting the familiar names of Maazel, Sanjust and Sellner, who was Deutsche Oper Berlin’s intendant at the time. Updating, alienation and other auteur exercises are absent. This is a slightly stylized, strenuously acted traditional production, which balances satirical mugging with realistic actions (dressing, shaving, eating), elaborate exercises with teacups, and a steady game of musical chairs that materialize and vanish on a dime.
The result is a clockwork Matrimonio, a farce with music, with everything focused on speed. Maazel and his cast are slick to a fault but mostly too well oiled to gain an instant’s emotional traction. One opportunity for a little depth, Carolina’s plaintive “Deh! Lasciate ch’io respiri” in the quintet late in the opera, is rushed insensitively and cut to shreds. Erika Köth, still brilliant in the pert, spiky manner of her Konstanze and other coloratura roles, radiates comic charm and modesty in Carolina’s aria “Perdonate, signor mio,” which substitutes some words of Russian for the original German. Lisa Otto is a lively foil as the jealous sister Elisetta, though vaguer than Köth both in singing and temperament. Donald Grobe (Paolino) and Barry McDaniel (the Count) are smooth and supple. In the more buffo roles, veteran bass Josef Greindl brings a welcome, exaggerated resonance to the role of the hard-of-hearing Geronimo, and Patricia Johnson does some comparable vocal mugging as a comical Aunt Fidalma.
Sellner’s video direction works well with his staging, with plenty of variety in camera angles and distances. The production has much of the feverish ingenuity of a more famous director and contemporary, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. It could have benefited from one or two of the silent pauses that Ponnelle wove expertly into his gymnastics.
DAVID J. BAKER
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