A Watershed Moment Director: Werner Herzog's most famous film was set in the Amazon. That, and his love of opera, make him a natural for "Il Guarany."

November 03, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

An opera about the Amazon needs Werner Herzog.

After all, the German film director spent four years there making his most famous movie, "Fitzcarraldo," which is about the Sisyphean complications that ensue from its hero's obsession with bringing Enrico Caruso to sing in the jungle.

What's more, Herzog himself loves working in opera houses.

"Living and breathing music for four weeks is like going to Hawaii for me," says the director, 54, a slim, balding man, whose calm, unruffled manner belies his reputation for driving himself and those working for him to extremes in order to achieve intensity in his movies. "The only reason I consider staging an opera 'work' is because I get paid for it."

So it's hardly surprising that Herzog turned up as the director when Placido Domingo decided to make Carlos Gomes' forgotten "Il Guarany" the first production in his first season as the new artistic director of the Washington Opera. When this opera about the Portuguese colonization of Brazil in the 16th century opens Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center, it will be the first production of "Il Guarany" in the United States in 112 years.

But it is the second in three years for Domingo -- who will sing the lead role of Pery -- and for Herzog. Domingo had always wanted to sing Pery, which had been associated with such great tenors as Caruso, Benjamin Gigli and Mario del Monaco. He got his chance in 1993 when his friend, Gian-Carlo del Monaco -- the son of Mario -- was appointed chief administrator of the Bonn Opera in Germany. In their discussion of who should resurrect "Il Guarany," only one name was ever mentioned. Both del Monaco and Domingo were friendly with Herzog, both believed that "Fitzcarraldo" was a masterpiece and both admired his recent work as an opera director. Herzog agreed to do it, and the result in 1994 was one of the opera world's most talked-about productions.

Although Herzog directed his first opera in 1985, his love of classical music and his uncanny skill in using it to complement visual images had been obvious since the start of his film career in the 1960s. The ambiguous mood of "The Enigma of Kaspar Hause or Everyone for Himself and God against All (1974)," in which an innocent is brutalized by the society that tries to "civilize" him, is capped by the director's use of "Dies Bildnis" from Mozart's "Magic Flute" for the final scene. Herzog's juxtaposition of sound and image creates an almost unbearably poignant contrast between the capacity to imagine a benevolent universe and the reality that it is cruel and uncaring. And Herzog's television documentary about the courtship rituals of sub-Saharan nomads, "Wodaabe" (1989), opens to grotesque images of men with their faces painted like women, and the sound of the last of the castrati singing Gounod's "Ave Maria."

"Very few people know how to use music in film," says Herzog as he talks about the differences between staging opera and making movies. But such knowledge, he adds, cannot predict a film director's success in staging opera.

"In a movie, I decide what music to use and how it will fit the images I am filming," Herzog says. "In an opera, on the other

hand, a whole world has already been created by the music and the text and I have to fit the images and the action to these. In the opera house, my goal is the transformation of the palpable world into music."

Herzog's apparent devotion to the music and its text -- which contrasts sharply with the cavalier attitudes of many high-profile stage directors -- has made him popular with the musicians and singers who perform opera, including conductors as prominent as Riccardo Muti and Riccardo Chailly, and made him a favorite even in as conservative a place as Bayreuth, Germany.

"His 'Lohengrin' at Bayreuth was the best production of Wagner I've ever seen," says Mario Venzago, who frequently guest conducts the Baltimore Symphony and conducts at several European opera houses. "His 'Magic Flute' at Catania [Italy] was the best Mozart."

After "Il Guarany," Herzog is likely to find himself as popular in opera houses here as he is in Europe. It's scarcely a secret that included among the heads of important American opera houses planning to see the Washington show is James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera and an admirer of Herzog's "Lohengrin" at Bayreuth.

"These days I seem to be more in demand for opera than for film," Herzog says, somewhat ruefully.

Jinxed project

"Fitzcarraldo," released in 1982, was the last of his features to find wide circulation. That he now works in film on a much reduced scale is partly a matter of choice and partly a matter of the reaction of movie financiers to his problems in making "Fitzcarraldo."

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