There’s no shortage of movie musicals based on popular plays. Far fewer are based on operas. Max Ophüls’s rarely seen 1932 film “The Bartered Bride,” a seventy-six-minute, giddily inventive adaptation of the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s two-hour-plus comic opera (which premièred in 1866), does more than set the template—it sets a standard that few, if any, films have matched to date.

“The Bartered Bride” was Ophüls’s second feature, and his first with a decent budget; he was only thirty years old when he made it. The story, set in 1855, involves a strapping young coachman named Hans, who’s driving a pompous businessman to Vienna when a wheel breaks on the open road. Hans gallops off to the nearest village to get it repaired. There, at a carnival in the town square, he has a meet-cute (involving an escaped piglet) with a young woman named Marie, and they fall for each other instantly. But she is the daughter of the mayor, who is busy arranging her marriage to a rich but insipid young man. She rejects the arranged marriage, and, when a circus arrives in town, Marie’s jilted suitor falls in love with the daughter of the circus owners. So Hans must go to elaborate lengths to keep the circus in town in order to seal his and Marie’s union.

In his autobiography, Ophüls (who died in 1957, at the age of fifty-four) says that his producer suggested that Ophüls merely record on film a staging of the opera, with an opening scene showing two men going to see it. Fortunately, Ophüls had another idea (and the producer went along with it): to distill the tale and the opera to a brisk musical romp and film it on location, in a village outside Munich, where Ophüls reconstructed an entire mid-nineteenth-century rustic Czech village, and throughout the surrounding countryside. The cast includes opera singers (including two of the most prominent of the era, Jarmila Novotna and Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, as the young lovers); the locally famous stage-comedy team of Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt, as the circus directors; Max Schreck (the primordial cinema-vampire from “Nosferatu”), in an unfortunate parody role as a silent Native American in the circus company; a throng of amateur actors recruited from the region; a man in a bear suit; and an actual bear.

What distinguishes the adaptation of “The Bartered Bride” is the florid, flamboyant realization of its comedic spectacle. Throughout, Ophüls sets the camera and the action awhirl, packing the frame with foregrounded hustle and bustle that lends the teeming, rustic events added romantic urgency. Ophüls conjures a kaleidoscopic tumble of grand emotion, as in a bravura nocturnal sequence that leaps from breathtakingly confessional tenderness to rowdily abstracted gaiety to desperately melodramatic anguish. The proceedings are tinged with a good-humored nostalgic flavor, as in scenes of crowds of dancers seen from overhead, a series of nineteenth-century carnival attractions, and a carnival scene in which villagers get their first taste of the miraculous new art of photography—“the mirror image on paper,” as the barker sells it. (Ophüls turns it into poignant physical comedy with a twist of Dorian Gray.) Ophüls’s mighty visual and dramatic imagination is matched by the wit of the script, which he co-wrote with Curt Alexander—who later died in Auschwitz. (Ophüls, who was Jewish, left Germany in 1933 and moved to France, then to Hollywood, and, ultimately, back to France, where he created his final round of supreme masterworks.)

The delights and wonders of “The Bartered Bride” arouse surprise that adapting operas into films hasn’t been done more often. (One other great work in the genre is Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones,” from 1954.) The term “operatic” is defined as “grand, dramatic, or romantic in style or effect,” but, in practice, the art is something else, too—it’s tightly controlled, the work of extensive training that evokes extremes of passion with extremes of artifice and self-discipline. It’s an art that combines the polar opposites of free emotional rein and rigidly refined expression. In “The Bartered Bride,” Ophüls makes brilliantly original use of opera, but, on contact with “The Bartered Bride,” his work became instantly operatic; it’s his second feature but the first that reveals his distinctive artistry. From then on, opera needed him more than he needed it.

The version of “The Bartered Bride” that’s available online is a somewhat dim copy that nonetheless packs its own flavor of aestheticized romanticism: watching it feels like a late-night TV viewing from roof-antenna days, or like a screening of a 16-mm print as projected from behind the screen at the erstwhile revival palace Theatre 80 St. Marks. It provides a welcome break from pristine (and often over-pristine) digital restorations.

Stream “The Bartered Bride” at the Internet Archive and other sites.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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