Saturday, May 02, 2009

Classic Hertzog film "Fitzcarraldo" celebrates opera, symphonic music


Back in 1982, one of Werner Herzog’s most “ambitious” films appeared at indie theaters; it’s now on DVD from Anchor Bay, with Dolby Digital added and cropped for wide screen anamorphic. The movie was “Fitzcarraldo”, about a businessman, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (played by Klaus Kinski), living in the Peruvian jungle around 1910 or so. With a passion for opera, he comes up with a plan to make enough money to build an opera house in Iquitos, the last stopover on the Amazon (almost) before the Andes bisect the country. He will lease the one unclaimed rubber-tree property in the area, and then buy a steamer (the Molly Aida), cruise it up the Amazon, and then hire local stevedores (call them that) to carry the boat on pulleys over a small mountain, and then down another river to sell the latex. And finally, the boat it self becomes a kind of opera theater. Well, pardon, it doesn’t have the eight parts of an Elizabethan theater (yes, that was one our first 10th Grade literature test on Julius Caesar; there are no proscenium doors here).

But his passion is music, and particularly certain operas and certain composers, and most of all certain performers (Caruso). The movie opens with significant portions of the more melodramatic portions of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (“The Puritans”). During the river scenes, harmonically adventurous passages from Richard Strauss’s “Don Juan” appear (that’s actually an early work). At the end, when Fitzgerald has accomplished his “proof of concept” (or perhaps a “proof of life”) there is talk of bringing Wagner (particularly Parsifal) to the jungle – so different from Italian bel canto. I recall an old Decca recording (pretending to be Deutsch Grammophon) of the Bruckner 5th with the “Parsifal” prelude on the fourth side, all the way back to the early 60s.

The movie has music from old 78’s, especially the verismo aria “Recitar! Vesti la giubba “ (Perform) from "Pagliacci", presumably sung by Caruso.

Here's an excerpt from the famous script on Scriptorama.

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