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Thursday, August 19th, 2004


Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen: A Guide to 100 Years of Films, DVDs, and Videocassettes Featuring Operas, Opera Singers, and Operettas

by Ken Wlaschin

Sight and Song

A review by Stanley Kauffmann

Nobody reads an encyclopedia continuously and completely, not even a reviewer. A book made for reference is a different creature from a work intended to hold us throughout. This at least was the (self-invented) maxim with which I began Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen. But as I turned every one of the 787 double-columned, helpfully illustrated text pages (there are another ninety pages of bibliography, tape sources, and index), I found myself stopping to nibble much more often than I had expected. Before long I was fracturing my maxim. I certainly haven't read every word of Ken Wlaschin's book, but his material is so interesting, his enthusiasm so infectious, his comments so keen, that this seemingly innocent reference work becomes a diabolical trap. Who could spend the months that a thorough reading would take? Not I, regretfully. But I hope I'll need to refer to the book often.

Wlaschin is an American who for fifteen years was director of the London Film Festival and is now an officer of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He co-edited with Philip French The Faber Book of Movie Verse and is also a poet and novelist. He has apparently done all the work on this encyclopedia by himself. He acknowledges suggestions from many, but he mentions no collaborators or contributors, so (as with the late Ephraim Katz and the first edition of The Film Encyclopedia) the accomplishment, viewed simply as labor, is breathtaking. Add the work's high quality, and one's breath takes even longer to return.

Centrally the book is a guide to all the films of opera performances, complete or partial. Naturally the most popular operas have the most films and videos and DVDs to list: Carmen has twenty-four, followed by sixty-seven "early/related films," such as Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen. Every section on an opera is much more than a list. First, there is a marvelously concise plot summary and a précis of the work's stage history. Every entry for each of the items includes facts about the production, the cast, the length of the films, and (where applicable) their availability. Frequently an entry closes with an acute critical comment on the performance and the work itself. To have put together the data for all the operas in this book must have been a Herculean clerical job. Wlaschin doesn't rest there: apparently he has seen virtually all of the films he cites and offers opinions on them. To do all this for familiar works would be heroic enough; Wlaschin also does it, for example, for Michael Tippett's The Knot Garden.

All this material, core of the book though it is, is only part of the treat. Woven around those entries, alphabetically of course, are biographies of composers, of singers and conductors and designers, and pithy essays on various related subjects. The book's very first entry is Lina Abarbanell, who sang the first Hänsel in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel at the Metropolitan in 1905 but is noted here because she later sang in Yiddish opera films. The last entry is the German operetta Zwei Herzen in Dreivierteltakt (1930), one of my first foreign-language films. (I can still sing the title song.) Under the letter X there is only one entry, Xerxes, and the sole comment on it is "See Serse," where the film of the Handel opera is discussed. We can imagine Wlaschin sighing with relief that he had at least one excuse for an X section.

Another nugget. The idea of silent films of opera seems the arch oxymoron of the ages, but such films began very soon after film was invented. Wlaschin tells us that in 1898 a two-minute version of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment was shot in New York. The peak in this strange field was certainly the Austrian film of Der Rosenkavalier done in 1926, directed by Robert Wiene, who had made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Richard Strauss arranged the score that was to accompany the film, added a march, and himself conducted the orchestra at the premieres of the film in Vienna and London.

Operas have been composed--partially, at least--for use in films that are on other subjects. The best-known is Bernard Herrmann's Salammbô for Citizen Kane. (Kiri Te Kanawa has beautifully recorded the aria that Susan Alexander murders in the film.) But there are thirty others, ranging from the (delightful) opera-house sequence in René Clair's Le Million (1931) to the 2001 film about Hannibal Lecter.

I was glad to make the acquaintance of Carmine Gallone, "who specialized in opera films" and "probably made more films in the genre than any other theatrical filmmaker." He worked from 1913 to 1962 and made films of eleven operas, four biographical films about composers, and three films starring great singers. "His films," says Wlaschin, "may not be to everyone's taste, but they are made with an understanding of both cinema and opera." Oh, for a chance to sample Gallone.

Some oddities. Hans Werner Henze wrote an opera of Kleist's Der Prinz von Homburg, which seems a stretch in itself, and is stretched further because the opera was then filmed. William Bolcom wrote an opera called McTeague based on the Frank Norris novel that was the base of von Stroheim's Greed: it is included here because there is a documentary about it. Some of Walter Felsenstein's extraordinary opera productions, done in East Berlin but noted around the world, have been filmed. I was happy to see that Fellini squeezes into the book--on the ground that he used opera excerpts in a number of his films. After finding Fellini, I sought--and found--Nino Rota, composer of the haunting scores for several Fellini pictures, who also composed operas, one of which I once heard at Juilliard.

Some disagreements are inevitable, of course. Here are a couple. As one who cherishes many Richard Rodgers songs, I couldn't understand why he was included in a book with this title. Joseph Losey's film of Don Giovanni is, for me, clumsy and illogical, not the "truly great" work that Wlaschin calls it. But he justly celebrates the most wonderful opera film in my experience, Ingmar Bergman's Die Zauberflöte.

Open this book anywhere and something arrests the eye--if only an instance of the fact that encyclopedias, like politics, make strange bedfellows. On one page stands the titanic Feodor Chaliapin, whose Don in Pabst's Don Quixote is a treasure; on the facing page is Charlie Chan at the Opera. Oh, well. For anyone who cares about opera and film, this book is a seduction.

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