ritter_blaubartFor those of us newly accustomed to watching The Met: Live in HD cinecasts and similar events in our neighborhood theaters, it is easy to forget that opera as cinema was once a very different experience. Ritter Blaubart, one in a series of seven films by Walter Felsenstein recently released on DVD, shows us the way it used to be — low-budget sets, highly managed direction, and the challenge of pairing up recording-studio singing with on-screen acting.

Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) composed more than 80 operettas for the Parisian stage. Some of his works continue to enjoy regular exposure today — among them La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, La Périchole, Orphée aux enfer, and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein—while others have long since faded into obscurity. Most were comic in nature and played on class differences that divided French society during the times in which Offenbach lived, a societal structure that was effectively destroyed not long after the country’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) put an end to the rule of Louis-Napoléon and brought about the Third Republic.

In some cases, Offenbach used characters from classical antiquity to (thinly) disguise his send-up of political figures and upper-class behavior, but audiences during the height of his fame — the late 1850s through about 1875 — knew exactly whom he and his librettists were spoofing. This is perhaps one of the reasons why most of his works have not survived into the present day. After all, how many 21st century Americans would be entertained by comic references to the Teapot Dome Scandal? Those pieces that have traveled best generally portray more universal archetypes that every society can recognize as a part of itself, and they also have the best music.

Walter Felsenstein (1901–1975) was a Vienna-born theater director whose interest in opera led him to create the Komische Oper (“Comic Opera”) Berlin, located in Soviet East Berlin. Throughout his tenure he produced more than 200 operas, the vast majority of which were sung in German. Seven of these productions were subsequently turned into feature films, beginning with Fidelio in 1956 and ending with Die Hochzeit des Figaros (“The Marriage of Figaro”) 20 years later. Ritter Blaubart (his version of Barbe-Bleu) was shot in 1973, a color production sponsored by East German television.

Felsenstein begins the film (Arthaus Musik 101293) with a movie-within-a-movie setup but soon abandons that artifice to settle into a more conventional filmed musical. In some ways it is mindful of Hollywood’s treatment of Brigadoon, except with cheesier sets and singing actors accustomed to providing the broad reactions more at home on stage than on the big screen.

Because of the era in which this film was shot, Felsenstein’s cast is comprised entirely of Eastern Bloc singers. Tenor Hanns Nocker, barely a household name in pre-glasnost Leipzig much less anywhere in the West today, sings the title role. He was a Felsenstein favorite, however, appearing in many Komisch productions over the years. Following his entrance on the set a good 30 minutes into the film—dressed in an armor-enhanced outfit strangely Elizabethan in design and accompanied by a six-man, halberd-bearing entourage that would not be out of place on the set of The Nutcracker (or a Monty Python sketch) — Nocker shows off a pleasantly lyrical voice well-suited to comic inflection. Even though Offenbach’s operettas boast an occasional opera-quality aria, most of the singing can be adequately rendered by a voice suited to musical theater. Nocker fits that bill perfectly and, more importantly, his slightly-over-the-top acting skills are ideal for the role of Blaubart.

None of the other main characters is especially memorable, but Ritter Blaubart is not meant to be a star vehicle. In fact, most of Offenbach’s operettas were created as ensemble pieces—among his major hits, only Gerolstein was written to place a primary character front and center—and he uses the chorus liberally. Ingrid Czerny sings the role of Fleurette (Princess Hermia), Bluebeard’s intended sixth wife. Other prime roles include Ruth Schob-Lipka as Queen Clémentine, Anny Schlemm as Boulotte, Manfred Hopp as Daphnis (Prince Saphir), and Rudolf Asmus as Popolani. None of the singers is miscast, and each has a sufficiently decent voice to make listening to this performance the joyfully pleasant experience one should expect from any Offenbach opera bouffe.

It can be challenging to translate a libretto into another language. One must retain the proper meter to accommodate the music while leaving the text unaltered in meaning or intent. One of the hallmarks of librettos by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy—the Gilberts of their day to Offenbach’s Sullivan—was biting satire contained within highly entertaining rhymed verse. Their version of the “patter song” (imagine a French rendition of one of Ko-Ko’s songs from The Mikado!) clearly illustrates their ability to pair witty repartee with Offenbach’s slew of sixteenth-notes that can last for bars and bars, barely giving the singer a chance to catch a breath.

Felsenstein collaborated with Horst Seeger, the opera house’s literary director, to craft a German libretto that was as faithful to the original as possible. They succeed reasonably well in managing to achieve satisfactory rhyming schemes for many of the film’s songs, although some were rendered in blank verse to better explain the on-stage action. There are also spots where the French lines have been retained, but even that aberration makes sense where employed; it’s usually in places where the lines have already been delivered in German or else are immaterial to plot progression.

It would be easy to dismiss this production as laughably provincial. One could almost imagine the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 giving King Bobéche (Werner Enders) the same sort of riffing they leveled at the character Lemminkäinen in the joint Finnish-Russian film The Day the Earth Froze. But Ritter Blaubart is no musical Plan 9 From Outer Space: not even close. Offenbach’s music transcends whatever production values may have been lacking in this East German presentation, the script faithfully follows the original 1866 libretto  —  where fans of French operetta can be just as amazed today that Offenbach was able to turn such a grisly storyline into comedy (we are, after all, speaking of a man whose five previous wives each died under mysterious circumstances) — and the lip-synching is not distracting. Felsenstein’s staging is compact enough to give the viewer a sense of how this production might have looked up on stage, but he also employs the kind of scene changes and shot angles that one could never experience as part of a theater audience.

Adding to the enjoyment of this restoration on DVD is a second disk chock full of extras. These include segments of the shooting script and corresponding scenes from a staged performance of the operetta—shot live in black-and-white. This is fascinating archival material, especially when compared to the same scenes in the feature film. There are also two audio interviews of Herr Felsenstein, conducted in German but with subtitles. The entire production includes subtitles in English, French, German, and Spanish.