Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for February 21 of this year feature Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s superb video of Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville. During the course of that post, I wrote:

“Comedy requires deftness, speed, and timing, timing, and more timing. Ponnelle’s production has it all, and the opera crackles under his direction. I would like to say that I can hardly imagine an equally good opera film, but actually, I can: Ponnelle’s own version of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, filmed in 1976. With an all-star cast featuring Hermann Prey, Mirella Freni, Dieterich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Maria Ewing; accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm; staged and directed by Ponnelle; and produced by DG, this version of Figaro remains among the very best opera films I’ve ever seen. I will find a reason to feature the performance in a post of its own sooner than later.”

Yesterday’s anniversary of the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro on May 1, 1786, is all the excuse we need to celebrate Ponnelle’s film!

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988)

Portrait of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle

The opera director and designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was born in Paris on February 19, 1932. He died, much too young, in Munich on August 11, 1988, at the age of 56.

(Ponnelle’s death was the result of a crazy, work-related accident. He was in Munich to direct a production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. At some point during a rehearsal, distracted and not looking where he was going, he fell off the stage into the orchestra pit, injuring himself badly. Hospitalized, a blood clot travelled to his lungs, and he subsequently died from a pulmonary embolism [a blockage of an artery in the lungs].)

Ponnelle came from an artistic and artistically connected family. His father, Pierre Ponnelle, came from a long line of high-end vintners and was, as well, a music critic, an excellent combination of professions if you want to be paid to drink and listen to music. Pierre Ponnelle was also a friend of the great Richard Strauss (1864-1949), and it was his German connections that led him to move himself and his family to Baden-Baden in Germany after the war, where he directed the radio broadcasts in the French zone of occupation.

A sampling of Pierre Ponnelle wines
A sampling of Pierre Ponnelle wines

When he turned 18 in 1950, Jean-Pierre left Germany and returned to Paris, where he studied philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne and took art lessons from the famed French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker Fernand Léger (1881-1955).

In 1951, Ponnelle was contacted by a friend from his years in Germany, the composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012). Henze had just completed his first opera: a one-act drama entitled Boulevard Solitude, which was modern, post-World War Two retelling of Manon Lescaut. Henze asked Ponnelle to “design” the production, which meant designing the sets and costumes. Ponnelle didn’t have to be asked twice. Boulevard Solitude received its premiere on February 17, 1952, at the Landestheater in the German city of Hanover, and Ponnelle’s career was born. He designed opera, ballet, and theater productions across Europe during the 1950s, and made his American debut in 1958, when he created sets for a staged performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in San Francisco in 1958.…

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