In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.
Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of its kind.
The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.
Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.
The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach.
In the accompanying dvd “Making of the Ring,” Boulez appears commendably unconcerned when he nonchalantly admits that audience taste is of little concern to him.
In 2007 the age-defying Boulez re-teamed with Chereau once more for a filmed version of Janacek’s “House of the Dead,” before permanently retiring from the opera house.
Janacek’s final, harrowing, rhythmically complex, intense opera on the horrors of politicalimprisonment was a tailor-made choice for combination of Chereau/Boulez/Peduzzi and was greeted with universal acclaim.
In between the two productions with Boulez, Chereau directed a much discussed but seldom seen, filmed version of Alban Berg’s grim, expressionist masterwork: “Wozzeck.”
In 1992 Boulez teamed with director Peter Stein, set designer Karl-Ernst Herrmann and the Welsh National Opera for the production of Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play. The stage production, studio recording and resulting film evoked considerable controversy and criticism in regards to Boulez’s casting an all non-French cast; Alison Hagley as Melisande, Neil Archer as Pelleas, and Donald Maxwell as Golaud. Boulez’s conducting and casting choices, coupled with Stein’s stylistic interpretation, makes for a far more cubist, rather than impressionistic, Pelleas.
Boulez also teamed with director Oliver Herrmann, his beloved Ensemble Intercontemporain, and avant specialist soprano Christine Schaefer for a compelling filmed version of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” in the 2000 produced dvd collection One Night, One Life. In the spirit of this still very difficult, weird, beautiful and provocative song cycle, Herrmann’s film takes place in a slaughter house, a porn peep show, featuring nudity and cigarettes aplenty. The film, like the music, is visionary poetry.
Another filmed “Der Ring des Nibelungen” cycle emerged in 1991, pairing traditionalist Wagnerian Daniel Barenboim with post modernist director Harry Kupfer. This film immediately gained almost legendary status with Kupfer’s post-apocalyptic, hyper-bleak stage design, Barenboim’s thick, highly romanticized conducting, and a superb cast. Graham Clark as Mime and Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried outshine their counterparts in the Chereau/Boulez cycle, while Jon Tomlinson goes a considerable distance in trying to top McIntyre’s warts-and-all Wotan.
Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer followed their acclaimed “Ring” cycle with Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which, if anything, was even more successful. After a decade long hiatus, this has finally been made available on dvd.
Comparing their geometric, sparse Parsifal to that of Neues Kino director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s controversial 1982 multi-layered collage film would be a pointless task. Syberberg’s famous film is a case of a director with so much to say, that it literally becomes a truly rare kitchen sink moment in which repeated viewings reap priceless rewards.
Syberberg’s Jungian references abound with fascist symbolism, Nietzsche, Christian mythology, Post World War II Euro culture in a narcotic texture unlike anything before or since. Entire books could be written about this one of a kind film.
In 1993, long before Titus, Frida, or her most recent (and amazing) work, Across the Universe, Julie Taymor was known to modern opera buffs as the director of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Taymor filtered Stravinsky’s opera through her own undeniably powerful, highly individualistic voice.
Undoubtedly, Stravinsky (who, like Picasso, went through numerous phases, from neo-classicism to post Webern serialism and yet made everything he touched sound like his own) would have approved of Taymor’s kindred aesthetic spirit.
When Taymor’s production first became available on the video market, word spread quickly, with many proclaiming it to be one of the very best, if not the best, opera yet filmed.
The sets (by George Tsypin), masks, sculptures, puppets, costumes ( Ei Wade), make-up (Reiko Kruk), Japanese dance and narration (the libretto by Jean Cocteau, originally in Latin, allowed for translation to the native language), Ozawa’s incisive conducting, add up to one of the most extraordinarily stylized and emotionally draining operatic experiences caught on film thanks to Taymor’s uncompromising, riveting vision. Not too surprisingly, Oedipus Rex was available only briefly and was finally made available again in 2005, after numerous requests.
Still, for many, Taymor’s Rex must compete with one of the oldest and still best contemporary operas on film: the 1951 film version of Menotti’s The Medium.
Gian Carlo Menotti was a powerful exception to the unspoken rule that musicians should leave stage direction to others (unlike Herbert Von Karajan, who repeatedly re-enforced the wisdom of that rule). Unfortunately, Menotti only directed a few films. Naturally, the Medium’s black and white cinematography expresses the haunting them of Menotti’s libretto. This film is still talked about as the yardstick of filmed operas, some fifty years after its debut.
Kaijah Saariaho is considered to be one of the few undeniable giants in 21st century avant-garde music. That she has an impassioned advocate in conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen certainly hasn’t hurt. She teamed up with him and the infamous, enfant terrible director Peter Sellars for the filmed version of her opera L’ Amour de Loin in 2005.
Sellars evocative, minimalist direction perfectly serves this diaphanous music which echoes and flows from the likes of Debussy and Messiaen ( Salonen, who specializes in the music of all three, is equally perfect in his interpretive powers). There’s water and enveloping blackness aplenty, atmosphere rather than an abundance of over developed plot. For all the hopelessly conservative, classical fundamentalists ” Let’s do everything in our power to kill the future of art-music and no longer make it a viable art form” moaning and groaning of what’s wrong in contemporary music, this production shows exactly what’s right. It’s one of the few times everything comes together just right.
Sellars, of course, came to notoriety with his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas in 1989, 1990. His Don Giovanni takes place in “the bronks” with two African-American brothers in the lead roles, and part of the opera coming out of a boom box. Cosi fan Tutti is set in a post punk modern diner, complete with Mozart silhouetted latrines, and Le Nozze de Figaro moves like quicksilver in Trump Towers. Opera traditionalists practically branded Sellars as an antichrist, but his avant-pop interpretations were a literal removing of the cobwebs and done completely in a Mozartian, devil-may-care spirit. His productions won him a legion of fans and made opera-going hip, albeit briefly.
After Handel’s Giulio Cesare in 1992 and Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (done MTV style) in ’93, Sellars appropriately tackled Theodora for Y2K. Handel’s opera on ancient Rome and early Christianity becomes a modern parable in JFK Airport with a Swat team symbolizing the Roman Army, the President of the United States personifying Nero, and worshipping of the ancient gods during happy hour.
In 2007, Sellars teamed with minimalist composer John Adams for the filmed version of his most universally acclaimed production, Doctor Atomic. Adams’ opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the testing of the atomic bomb is an overwhelmingly exquisite and intense post Varese electronic opera, even for those who normally do not respond to Adams’ music (ahem). Sellars direction is a perfect marriage between an innovative, visionary director and contemporary composer.
n 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen. The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias. Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors. Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are apt to do. Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.
Franc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.
Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.
Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.
Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.
Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.
Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.
Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough,most intimate work remains 1974′s Mahler, with Robert Powell (auditioning here for his role in Jesus of Nazareth) and Georgina Hale ideal in their roles as Gustav and Alma Mahler. Russell, one of the most skilled directors when it comes to marrying music and imagery, gives refreshingly imaginative life to Mahler’s Third and Seventh Symphonies, as well as to Wagner. The scherzo to the Mahler Seventh becomes a phantasmagorical, black joke on sex and death, the opening of the Third takes on new world imagery, and Wagner’s vehement anti-semitism gets blatantly cut down in Russell’s eager hands (it’s far preferable to 2001′s execrable Bride of the Wind).
Mahler has nearly become the new testament in most music circles, relegating Beethoven to old testament status; and the DVD market reflects this as much as the CD market. One of the most definitive Mahler documentaries is the 2003 What the Universe Tells Me, which is a penetrating, philosophical and probing analysis of his epic Third Symphony.
There have been numerous Mahler concert films, beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s legendary filmed 1970′s cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic (a high point in this is his understandably bitchy chastisement at the hopelessly conservative, stubborn, prima-donna like orchestra members). Bernstein took on the mantle of educator once again with the insightful Mahler essay, The Little Drummer Boy, in 1985. Additional filmed performances have continued on up to the opposite end of the spectrum with 2008′s cubist Mahler Second Symphony (from Pierre Boulez) and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Most surprising of all may be surrealist auteur Guy Maddin‘s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, which re-tells this very old story as a silent ballet juxtaposed to Mahler’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies.
Before Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Leopold Stokowski was considered the American musical educator. Uptight musicologists (is there any other kind?) may have foamed at the mouth every time Stoki walked up to the stage and played havoc with the scores, but audiences loved his flamboyant charisma and amorous flings (including an affair with Greta Garbo and a marriage to Gloria Vanderbilt ) along with his musical catholicism. This wizard was a natural choice for Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Of course, it’s well known that Walt was crucified for this, his most ambitious project and, initially, biggest heartbreaking failure. Despite it’s almost legendary status, this one of a kind experiment (Fantasia 2000 only fleetingly came close) is so startlingly unique that mainstream audiences still don’t know quite what to make what of it, treating it almost as if it were an unapproachable, baffling avant-garde manifesto (contemporary corn fed on hyper-realism, mainstream audiences, amazingly, do nearly the same with any given Busby Berkeley film). Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Dukas and Bach come off best, although there are rewards throughout.
Some of the most hardcore 20th/21st century avant-garde performers and performances are finally, but surprisingly, being committed to film.
Mode Studios has released a Iannis Xenakis series. The late, post Webern, electronic composer’s string works, his infamous Krannerg, and La Legend d’ Eeer are among the works being performed by the Jack Quartet. These filmed performances only go further in emphasizing the music’s difficulty.
The sublime A Trail on the Water, one of the best films of its kind, intimately humanizes the person and music of Luigi Nono, who ranks with Boulez and Stockhausen as one of the towering voices of post-World War II music. Despite his avowed atheism, Nono’s late works became increasingly meditative, introverted and, yes, spirtual. Trailaptly explores the composer’s relationship with his beloved Venice, his wife (the daughter of Arnold Schoenberg, who started it all), and two advocates in pianist Pollini and conductor Abbado.
The hopelessly overrated Philip Glass and John Cage have been well represented on DVD. The best of these is perhaps Facet’s 1992 Listen which features both Cage and Luciano Berio. However, both composers here are frequently accused of style over substance, and this film goes to no great length to disprove that.
The series Juxtapositions may be the most valuable avant-garde film collection, despite some weaker entries. Philip Glass: Looking Glass and Arvo Part: 24 Preludes for a Fugue are predictably lesser entries but Gustav Mahler: Conducting Mahler/I Have Lost Touch With the World surprisingly offers little and falls flat. Still, the excellence of Elliott Carter: A Labyrinth of Time, Olivier Messiaen: The Crystal Liturgy, Nadia Boulanger: Mademoiselle, Pierre Boulez: Juxta Positions, Igor Stravinsky: The Final Chorale/Five Orchestral Pieces,The Matchstick Man / The Seventh Door – Two films on Gyorgy Kurtag and Peter Eotvos, cannot be over estimated and are all indispensable.
Also of noteworthy mention should be the DVD releases of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Mass (the former being his greatest work and the latter well ahead of its time) , Ives: The Unanswered Question, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Maria Ewing’s one of a kind, head turning performance as Salome, Strauss’ underrated Die Frau OhneSchatten (a top notch production starring Cheryl Studer), Boulez In Rehearsal (Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra / Boulez Notations I-IV), Musik Trienniale Koln 2000 – Berg Lulu Suite / Debussy – Le Jet D’Eau / Stravinsky – Firebird,Debussy: La Mer/Le Martyre De Saint Sebastien/Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado, Claude Debussy; The Fall of the House of Usher/Prélude à la l’après-midi d’un Faune/Jeux, Bregenzer Festspiele, After the Storm: The American Exile of Bela Bartok, Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle, Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps – Ballets by Uwe Scholz, Doris Dorrie and Barenboim’s 1960′s-type take on Cosi Fan Tutte, and too many alternative “Rings” to keep track of.
*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies