Five opera films that hit the high notes | Bleader

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Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
  • Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
Inspired by the Gene Siskel Film Center's screenings this upcoming week of Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Fluteall part of the theater's extensive "Bergman 100" serieswe've selected five other opera films of note. If this list seems a bit highbrow, know that we would have listed Chuck Jones's great Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon What's Opera Doc? in all five spots if we could have. But these are good too.

Carmen Jones
There's something contradictory in the notion of an Otto Preminger musical: his admirable rational/realist sensibility doesn't settle too well with the whims of the genre. But there are some fine Preminger moments in the midst of this 1954 film, an all-black pop version of Carmen—fine, that is, if you take the trouble to separate them from the clumsy segregationist context. Impeccably liberal in its time, the film has not aged gracefully, although Dorothy Dandridge's performance in the lead remains a testimony to a black cinema that might have been. In CinemaScope. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Bluebeard's Castle
After the hostile reception to his 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom, Michael Powell was virtually banished from English cinema, and most of his remaining oeuvre is a scattered assortment of TV commissions and Australian features. Made in 1963 for West German TV, this rarely seen one-hour adaptation of Béla Bartók's only opera, based on a libretto by Béla Balázs (later known as a film theorist and as screenwriter of Leni Riefenstahl's first feature), is a particular standout, especially for its vivid colors and semiabstract, neoprimitive decor (by Hein Heckroth, who also designed the sets for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman). The two performers are producer Norman Foster (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor and director) in the title role and Anna Raquel Satre as Bluebeard's doomed wife, Judith. In accordance with Powell's wishes, the English subtitles briefly describe and clarify the action but don't translate the text. 60 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Moses and Aaron
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have used Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone opera as the basis for a rigorous and fascinating exercise in elemental cinema (1975). A film about film—the meaning of long takes and short shots, of camera movement and static composition, of angles and perspectives. Schoenberg is Greek to me, but Straub and Huillet's investigation of the medium is an important experience for anyone interested in the way film represents reality—or fails to. In German with subtitles. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Don Giovanni
Joseph Losey's film of Mozart's opera (1979) has redundant trappings of Freud and Marx, as if Losey felt the need to make the material more personal. He shouldn't have bothered, because it already plays straight to his concerns: Giovanni, with his self-destructive idealism, stands in the line of Losey heroes from The Boy With Green Hair to Mr. Klein. The visual context is ravishing, with a lighting scheme that builds from the understated and naturalistic to shocking contrasts of black and white. Meanwhile, the camera moves with a preternatural grace, drawing clean, curving lines through the romantic confusions. If the film has a fault, it is a common one in Losey: the absence of an emotional support for his piercing intellectual observations. 179 min. —Dave Kehr

Parsifal
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg has given us Wagnerian treatments of King Ludwig, Karl May, and Adolf Hitler; now, he gives us a Wagnerian treatment of Wagner, which seems somewhat redundant. Syberberg uses all the tricks of modern stagecraft—abstract settings, projected images, puppets, and doubled characters—to “expand” Wagner's Grail opera into man's eternal search for social perfection. But the meanings Syberberg tacks onto the piece are inherent in Wagner's work; his additions seem fussy, didactic, and often reductive. But Edith Clever, miming to the voice of Yvonne Minton as the witch Kundry, gives a performance of great passion and authority—a brilliantly effective revival of silent-film acting techniques. Reiner Goldberg supplies the voice of Parsifal; the other singers include Robert Loyd, Wolfgang Schöne, and Aage Haugland. 247 min. —Dave Kehr

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