The State Opera
A film by Toni Schmid
In German with subtitles in English, French, Japanese, Korean and Chinese
Also available as a Blu-ray (NBD0110V)
Naxos 2.110660 DVD [89]

I offered to audition and review this DVD under the mistaken impression that it was a film about the Vienna State Opera – it is in fact about the Bavarian State Opera. Quite why anyone outside of Bavaria would assume that the House in Munich is the State Opera, I am not so sure, but to be fair, its orchestra (the Bavarian State Orchestra) is five hundred years old this year (2023) and so is a venerable institution and they have been the resident pit band of the opera house in Munich since its inception nearly three hundred and seventy-five years ago. So to confirm, this is definitely a film about the Bavarian State Opera – not the State Opera of Vienna, Dresden or Berlin.

That said, the House in Bavaria is a very ambitious organisation, keen to promote itself by starting its own record label last year with a release of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony conducted by Kirill Petrenko (review) and is keen to point out that it produces performances on three hundred and fifty days of the year, nearly all of which are sold out to the proclaimed “opera-mad” locals, rather than foreign tourists (as with other major Houses); indeed, it is interesting to note that when the theatre in Munich was refurbished in 1815, it was decided that a capacity of two thousand would be appropriate for a city of only fifty thousand people at the time. 

It certainly has the most illustrious history, having the distinction of being the House which premiered Mozart’s Idomeneo, Wagner’s Tristan, Die Meistersinger, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Pfitzner’s Palestrina, Braunfels Die Vögel, as well as Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag and Capriccio. Its roster of past music directors is even more impressive featuring, amongst others, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss, Georg Solti, Rudolf Kempe, Ferenc Fricsay, Joseph Keilberth, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Zubin Mehta and Kent Nagano, all the way through to Kirill Petrenko who was Music Director at the time of this film, before leaving for the Berlin Philharmonic and being replaced by Vladimir Jurowski in 2021.

However, any prospective viewer would not learn any of this glittering history during the eighty-nine minutes of this film made in 2020 by Toni Schmid, who gushes in the booklet notes that his aim is to “show you the world behind the curtain”. So instead, you see snippets of rehearsals of Die Meistersinger conducted by Kirill Petrenko, Rameau’s Les Indes galantes conducted by Ivor Bolton and Un Ballo in Maschera conducted by Zubin Mehta, who also grants an interview where he talks about the challenges of conducting Italian opera in a German House (Petrenko [in]famously does not give interviews, not even to MusicWeb International, and Bolton clearly was clearly not considered interesting enough to be granted one). Local-boy-turned-international-opera-superstar, Jonas Kaufmann (who features in the Wagner production) chats about his views on the Bavarian State Opera, as does Anja Harteros, whose career is inextricably linked with Munich, and stars in Un Ballo. Sir Peter Jonas and Nikolaus Bachler, the previous and incumbent Directors of the House, gush about Petrenko and Mehta, but their insights are on the level of the kind of chillies Mehta likes to eat, as well as how he insists on having copies of The Times of India delivered to his office so he can be kept up to date with cricket match reports. They also speak about Herr Reggie Theatre, who seems to also be a consistent presence in Munich these days, including the productions featured, even if their explanations are not especially persuasive. We see ballet rehearsals, the set designers and the costume makers, plus have random chats with various members of the orchestra. 

However, there is nothing about the years during the Third Reich when, in part due to the Bavarians tendency to view themselves as semi-detached to the rest of Germany, they were largely left alone by the Nazis, as established by a study by Munich University in 2020, who noted that although Jewish staff and artists were evicted as early as 1933, after that the theatre suffered less interference than most other opera houses in Germany and Austria. It was never obliged to fly a swastika flag on the roof, or to engage in other acts of propaganda, although Hitler did have plans to replace the historic building with a more grandiose model. There is nothing about how the building was completely destroyed by fire after an Allied bombing raid in 1943, nor how its Music Director at the time, Clemens Krauss and his wife, the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac, helped Jewish folk escape from the Third Reich. Not a whisper of how the opera-life in the city was rebuilt and re-established after the war under the dynamic leadership of a young Georg Solti, nor anything about the importance of the eventual opening of the rebuilt theatre in 1963, an event so prestigious in (West) Germany at the time that even Herbert von Karajan was persuaded to take part in its opening season, conducting four performances of Fidelio during an era when he exclusively conducted opera at the Vienna State Opera, La Scala Milan and Salzburg (with a handful of performances a few years later at The Metropolitan, New York). If Carlos Kleiber’s name was mentioned, then I must have blinked and missed it, but his significance to the House is that he conducted the Bavarian State Orchestra more than any other ensemble and films exist of classic productions there of Die Fledermaus and Der Rosenkavalier led by him. Certainly Wolfgang Sawallisch’s infamous Ring Cycle from 1987 is ignored, an important production at the time which was musically superb, if also visually controversial (for example, if I said that as the orchestra thunders away in the middle of the Ride of the Valkyries, Brünnhilde’s sisters, all clad in black leather Nazi peak caps, jackets and tight shorts, link arms and do the can-can in time to the music, you will get the general idea of the kind of production it was).

Instead, as the director excitedly proclaims, his film instead offers a window into the everyday workings of an opera house – in which case a cynic may wonder if the film would have been more aptly titled “Any old State Opera”, rather than “The State Opera”. Offered at premium price, this video is no more than a back-slapping ‘docummercial’ and I am not sure if this is something anyone would want to view more than once and as such, I rather feel it is something of a missed opportunity.

 Lee Denham

Technical details
NTSC 16:9; PCM stereo and DTS5.1; Region 0, DVD9

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