Background

Everything I put up on Wikipedia gets wiped so I am putting it all up here in my own way -- mostly stuff that Wikipedia does not have in English. Mainly information about operetta but some other topics as well

Monday, December 14, 2015



Austro/Hungarian operetta

Austro/Hungarian operetta is light-hearted opera written  around a hundred years ago principally for the entertainment of the inhabitants of Wien (Vienna) which was at that time the capital of an ancient and major European state, the Austro/Hungarian empire.

Before the 19th century, opera was fairly cheerful. And among his 22 operas, Mozart in particular wrote a lot of Opera buffa, comic opera.  Comic or not, just the brilliant overtures of some of Mozart's operas reduce me to tears of joy. There is something unearthly in Mozart, for those who can hear it. But even Handel operas had a lot of joy in them.  At the finale of Giulio Cesare, for instance, we find in the finale everybody lined up and singing lustily a triumphant song.

But in the more famous 19th century, French and Italian opera became much more morbid.  They are romantic but everybody seems to die at the end of them. In "Carmen", for instance, Carmen gets stabbed to death by her jealous lover and in "Aida" the lovers end up immured.  So I enjoy the wonderful arias from 19th century French and Italian opera but I have never been inclined to watch much of the operas concerned:  Too bleak for me.  So for a long time, my liking for opera stopped at Mozart.

I have long been familiar with the more famous arias from operetta but grand opera had long put me off wanting to watch anything even vaguely recent.  About 6 months ago, however, I somehow got motivated to have a look at the more famous operettas, starting, of course, with  Im weissen Roessl, "The white horse inn" -- in the Moerbisch performance.  I was immediately enraptured: good music, great jokes, attractive singers, joyous dancing, total romance and a gloriously happy ending.  What more could one ask?  Realistic it was not but great fun it was. I must have watched the show somewhere between 30 and 50 times by now but I still laugh at the jokes every time.  They are that good.

Operettas and indeed most operas are romantic -- even though the outcome differs.  I am inclined to think that the most romantic of all is Zarewitsch by Lehar. And in true operetta style, advancing the romance by getting the heir to the throne of all  the Russias drunk on champagne is a definite classic.  Vienna was never a place for teetotalling.  There must have been trainloads of champagne going from the vineyards of France to Vienna.

Although it is easy to enjoy, I would like to make the case that it is actually very sophisticated entertainment.  For a start, the artistic requirements of both grand opera and operetta are quite high. The vocal feats required of the singers are maximal in both genres and good acting is, if anything, even more important in operetta.  Putting a joke across requires some very good timing and expression. And it is broadly the same singers who sing in both.

Secondly, Austro/Hungarian operetta was written for people who had it all.  They lived at the heart of an enormously rich civilization.  Vienna before WWI was not only a great and rich imperial capital with many nations under its rule but it was also at the cutting edge culturally and intellectually.

It was, for instance, the time and place of the immensely influential Sigmund Freud, by far the leading psychologist of the time. He was a great observer and I  quote him occasionally still. And the immense distinction of Vienna in analytical philosophy cannot be gainsaid -- Schlick, Wittgenstein etc.  And in economics the luminaries of the prewar Austrian school (Carl Menger; Eugen Böhm Ritter von Bawerk etc.) are honoured to this day -- though not among Leftists.  Vienna had a very good claim at that time to be the intellectual capital of the world.

And, musically, it started out on top -- with the enormous heritage of the great Austrian composers -- Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert etc -- so any new compositions had a lot to live up to.  And the wonder is that some composers stood out even in that environment -- with Strauss II being merely the best known of many.  And there were vast numbers of innovative Viennese artists too, led by Klimt in particular

So the Viennese had it all. And what you want when you have it all is entertainment.  And to be entertaining to such an indulged and sophisticated audience you had to be pretty good.  So I see the lightness and frivolity of operetta not as trivial but as a major cultural achievement.

As far as I can tell, waltzing seems to have a rather staid reputation in the Anglosphere but it is not at all staid in Austro/Hungarian operetta.  The joyous climax to a waltz can be where the lady throws her arms out wide while the man spins her around with his hands on her waist only.  That is very exciting.  Feminists would hate it.  Let me close with a famous line from Im weissen Roessl:  "Ein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein" (A song of love has to be a waltz).



Feminists would hate the scene above but I'm betting that the lady concerned was pleased to be there.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Le nozze di Figaro





I have just finished watching on DVD a 2006 French performance, sung in the original Italian with English subtitles, of "The Marriage of Figaro" by Mozart.  It is one of the most famous operas of all time so I am perfectly sure that I can say nothing original about it -- except perhaps to say that I still prefer Viennese operetta. Operetta is shorter and wittier.  But Mozart's wonderful music makes up for everything, of course.  The overture is one of my favourite pieces.

So what I want to do now is just to leave a few notes here for my own future reference about the cast of the performance I saw. I might at first note something amusing, however.  Apparently there was an IKEA in the 18th century!  The opening scene is of Figaro putting bits of a disassembled bed together!  In the original libretto he is just measuring up the room at that point so the producers of this show obviously had a little joke.

Pietro Spagnoli as the Count was very Italian, rather like a Mafia Don, so definitely well-cast.  Luca Pisaroni as Figaro is actually Venezuelan-born but probably from Italian parents.  He grew up in Italy, anyway. He gave a very strong performance.

Well-known German soprano Annette Dasch was strikingly pretty as the Countess. She is quite tall too, taller than everyone else in the cast aside from Figaro -- and she seems about the same height as him. And we see at one point that she is wearing FLAT shoes!

Her looks rather show up the gaunt-looking Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua as Susanna, though Susanna was very well played. Joshua is very experienced in that role. Maybe Joshua was on a very severe diet at the time. I gather she was born in 1970 or thereabouts so should not have been noticeably aged in 2006.

I disliked Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager as Cherubino. She is probably a fine woman but I thought she was very unconvincing in the role.  But I detest trouser roles anyway.  The part was originally written for a male so why not stick with that?  I appear to be quite out of tune with the times in that matter, though.  There is actually a currently fashionable feminist claim that men can play women's roles and women can play men's roles and it makes no difference.  As far as I can see, the difference is in fact highly visible.  It is just not good casting.

Looking into the ethnicity of opera singers is a little hobby of mine.  I like to guess what they are on first encountering a singer, even though I mostly get it wrong.  So Sophie Pondjiclis as Marcellina quite puzzled me. At times she looked very Italian but at others did not.  So I looked her up.  She is Greek.  So that rather solved it.  Greeks can be as explosive as Italians but don't do it as often.  That is as I have seen it, anyway.

Some of the info above was a little hard to get. Most of the singers are not well-known.  I very often in such searches find that I can get the info I want from sites in German only.  There is just nothing in English.

When looking up Pondjiclis there was nothing useful in English so I got the info off a non-English site.  I assumed that I was reading German but when I looked closely I saw it was in French, a language I have never studied. The foreigners begin at Calais, you know, to bowdlerize an old expression.

But, if I know roughly what the text is about, I find I can follow most European languages.  I remember reading a scientific paper in  Romanian once!  With only two major exceptions, European languages are all related, so the Latin, Italian and German I have studied open up other European languages fairly easily.

There are online quite a lot of excerpts from this performance, particularly of the arias sung  by Annette Dasch.  Below are two. Both have English subtitles.  The first is "Dove sono i bei momenti":



And we also have "Che soave zeffiretto"



Wednesday, October 21, 2015



Zar und Zimmermann

Yesterday I got in the mail a DVD of Zar und Zimmermann -- a German comic opera written about 150 years ago. It took me a long time to decide to buy it but I thought it might be worth a go. It is Austro/Hungarian operetta from either side of the year 1900 that I like and this was composed well before that period in Germany. But I seem by now to have acquired all of the few available DVDs of Austro/Hungarian operetta so I thought I might branch out a bit. Zar und Zimmermann (The Tsar and the carpenter) is after all an acclaimed and popular comic opera that is still performed in Germany.



Alas, however, the humour was very low level -- clown humour just about.  It had none of the quick wit and sophistication of Austro/Hungarian operetta.  I just got bored with it and turned it off 1.5 hours into the 2.5 hour show.  Maybe I will try to watch it again some time.  Could the final hour redeem it?  Who knows?

UPDATE:  I have now watched the final hour of the show and have ended up more favourably disposed towards it.  I even got a laugh out of the scene where the mistaken emperor Peter meets his girlfriend in his new role.  The show as a whole was just fun with nothing horrible happening -- which I liked.  I tried to re-watch the mentally ill "Carmen" recently but couldn't do it. It was just too silly.  I gave that DVD to Anne.  She likes conventional opera.

I was most taken with the scenes of Dutch shipbuilding, set in 1698.  It was great to see the old hand-tools in use -- adzes, augers, two-handed planes and crosscut saws. I may be one of the few left who have had some contact with all that.  I have seen a man use an adze and I have myself used a wood auger.  It is downstairs in my garage as I write this.

And seeing the crosscut saw was very nostalgic.  I remember my father setting and sharpening his big blue-steel crosscut saws.  He used them to cut down big forest trees in the era before chainsaws.  Yes: There was such a time.

And the very first Ray in my Australian family was a sawyer -- A central trade in building the old wooden ships. How do you get evenly straight planks without a circular saw?  The old sawyers did it.  The original Joseph Henry Ray came out from England to Australia as a convict chained up in the hold of a sailing ship -- an East Indiaman.  So I almost could see my great-great grandfather at work in this show.

An excerpt:



YouTube sometimes does strange things when clips are called from it. You get the wrong clip altogether sometimes. If the above clip is irrelevant, the link to the intended clip is here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/Yat7RGaR9q4

There were actually some distinguished people in the show.  The girlfriend was sung quite charmingly by the Slovakian Lucia Popp, whom the Austrian cultural authorities recognized as a Kammersängerin.

And the conductor was the distinguished Australian Charles Mackerras. There seemed to be rather a lot of Mackerrases around in Australian public life at one time.

The show was supposedly set in "Saardam", now "Zaandam". The production was from the Hamburgische Staatsoper, 1969.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Der Opernball by Heuberger



Perfect Viennese froth and bubble!  A perfect farce!  Nothing serious from beginning to end. Full of laughs.  A most enjoyable show.  It sometimes takes a bit to get "into" an operetta but this was all in the open from beginning to end. It is one of those operettas that one can watch time and time again without it palling. It was, of course, all about flirtation and deception, as a farce usually is.

The DVD I have records a "Made for TV" show of 1970 from Munich.  Libretto by Victor Leon and Heinrich von Waldberg; Directed by Willy Mattes; Music by Richard Heuberger, an Austrian.  The show was an instant hit at its first performance in 1898, getting rapturous applause.  And I fully understand why.

Movie versions of books and plays often stray a fair bit from the original and this one did too.  There is also a 1964 B&W version of the show featuring Ingeborg Hallstein and Peter Alexander which is  now known only from a clip from the famous Chambre séparée scene, and it too seems to have strayed off in yet a different direction.  But both meanders were successful and amusing so that is what matters.

Incidentally, I read that Heuberger spent a long time thinking about his composition of the Chambre Séparée scene but then sat down and wrote the entire duet in one afternoon.

The cast

I was pleased to see two familiar faces in the show:  Harald Serafin and Tatjana Iwanow.  I would not have recognized Serafin though. I had known him only in his incarnation as Intendant at Moerbisch -- mostly when he was in his '70s.  But in this show he was around 35.  Quite a shock to see how much difference age can make. I actually think he was more amusing in his '70s  -- though he was very good in this show. I was also interested to see that he was quite tall compared to the other actors in the show.

Ancestrally, he is half North German and half Italian so it was a bit amusing to see him cast as an Englishman in this show.

I first saw Tatjana Iwanow in Dollarprinzessin, recorded in 1971.  In both shows she played most convincingly a very cynical and scheming older woman.  She could bark orders well too, as when she shouted Setzen! at the maid "Hortense".  She played such an evil role that one could miss that she was actually quite good-looking however:  A fine figure of a woman with brilliant blue eyes.

The maid was played by Christiane Schröder.  A Berliner with grey eyes and fair skin, she looked rather English to me. She was rather short and also slightly built -- "only a slip of a girl", as the Irish say.  When Serafin grabbed her to dance with her at one stage, he looked like a monster beside her.  She was thrown around rather like a rag doll on a couple of occasions, actually.

Schröder had a sad life.  She was born in 1942, had considerable success in the theatre and in films but became depressed and at age 38 jumped off the Golden Gate bridge to her death. She was a dear little thing with real talent as a singer so I am sad that life turned out so badly and ended so soon for her. She did at one  stage marry so one hopes that gave her some of life's rewards for a time.

I am putting up below a picture of her with "Henri", her Naval cadet boyfriend, played by Uwe Friedrichsen, a Saxon, who is now in his 80s and well known as a character actor on German TV.  Something he did well was (blue) eyes opened very wide in a portrayal of surprise on various occasions.  All the color pictures of him online are in elderly roles so this is the first pic put online of him as a young man.  Google has picked it up  but there are so many pix of Friedrichsen online that you have to be an experienced or very patient Googler to find it



His part was originally written as a trouser role so I am profoundly glad that the producers of this show did not feel obliged to follow that obsolete fashion.  I hate that custom.

And I must mention the two ladies who were testing out their husbands.  Hélène Mané as "Angele" and Maria Tiboldi as "Marguerite" were both very pretty ladies who also sang well, the brown-eyed Hélène Mané with the big smile particularly.  She was elsewhere known for singing in Bach cantatas. I thought she looked either Italian or Southern French so I was not surprised to read the following puff about her:

"Hélène Mané comes from a French-Italian family of singers, her coloratura is known in all continents and she has guest-appeared in operas from Leningrad to Lisbon. Her repertoire is mostly Italian."

She seemed a nice lady anyway. At least one publicist saw her as the leading attraction in this show so the puff was perhaps not out of bounds.  She certainly got some good arias to sing and sang them well.

The Hungarian Maria Tiboldi was 31 at the time of the show but looked very young -- thanks, no doubt, to some combination of good skin and stage makeup.  She had a very pleasant rather low-pitched speaking voice.  A soprano with a low-pitched speaking voice seems rather mad but it is not uncommon in my experience.


The three women of the show, Tiboldi, Mané and Schröder

And I enjoyed the expressions of the Chambre séparée waiter.  Very droll and world-weary beneath the formality. He actually had a good racket going.  And it was one of the good laughs when Friedrichsen claimed to be aflame with passion for "Hortense".  The waiter was nearby at that point and, in an entirely understandable way, he rolled his eyes on hearing that! He was also amusing earlier on in that scene when "Hortense" urged Geduld (patience ) on her admirer.

And I did enjoy Heinz Erhardt as "Caesare-Aristide", the scandal-sheet proprietor  It was a comic role and he played it very well. The episode where his escort ordered a huge and expensive dinner  at his expense was utterly corny but so well-done as to be amusing anyhow. I still laugh when I think of it.  No wonder Erhardt was a noted comic.  And his wild dancing was a caricature of dancing. A great laugh.  He was trying to impress the low-class "Feodora" with his youthfulness.

He is just one of those naturally funny men like John Cleese or Barry Humphries.  He comes across as absurd from the outset.  He was a marvellous asset to the show. Some of the jokes involving him are in that rare category of jokes that you laugh at every time even if you have heard them many times before.

But I was surprised at the scene where "Hortense" was talking with her friend, the chambermaid at the "Ritz".  The chambermaid was clearly half Negro. That really stood out beside the very fair Berliner. Was political correctness already around in 1970?  Perhaps. Viennese operettas are usually as all-white as Russian ballet.  On second thoughts, it can't have been political correctness -- as the black lady was cast in a lowly servant role. So it was actually that naughty "stereotyping"!

Operetta normally has a clear leading lady and leading man but that was not at all clear in this case.  I guess that Serafin was  the leading man but who was the leading lady?  I would have to nominate "Hortense", even though she is clearly from the "second string" story.  For comparison: In Graefin Mariza at Moerbisch, I thought that Marco Kathol was the outstanding male figure too, despite being second string.

The action

Both Mané ("Angele") and Christiane Schröder ("Hortense") sang the Chambre séparée song very well but the singer who sang it best on this occasion was, in my view, Schröder, playing the little maid "Hortense".  She put out a few coloratura  trills at times throughout the show, so was no mean singer.

Having said that the show was a classical farce, I don't think I really need to say any more about the plot. It was to a considerable extent a re-run of the plot in Fledermaus,  albeit with two deceived men instead of one.

There were lots of funny bits but one that stays with me is  when the journalist asks the Englishman's wife what he had to give her to get a kiss.  She replies:  "chloroform".  What a put-down! Chloroform is a surgical anaesthetic.

As is common in operetta, there are fleeting jokes, jokes that fly by you in a couple of seconds which you may or may not "get".  One such was when "Georges" the journalist gets his invitation.  The other two men make fools of themselves when they get their invitations but "Georges" does not.  On hearing that his letter is from the Ritz, he immediately SNIFFS it.  And on detecting perfume rightly assumes that he will be busy later that day.  He has obviously had assignations with ladies at the Ritz before.  The maid reads him well, however.

Another fleeting event was when the maid introduces the low-class "Feodora".  I can't really isolate how she does it -- curtseying with upturned eyes and a smile maybe -- but she does display amused contempt for Feodora.  A Parisian maid may not be high up but is still a respectable somebody -- certainly above the hoi polloi in social status.

Another fast-moving joke lasting only a few seconds was towards the end of the show when the plebeian "Feodora" was suggested by the clueless "Caesare-Aristide" as the new chambermaid, that was generally accepted but Serafin quickly slipped her some "silence-money", which she promptly and wisely tucked into her bra.

Another thing that you had to be attentive to get was when the naval cadet was kissing the hand of the English lady.  His inamorata, "Hortense", gives him in passing a quick thump  on the shoulder while he was doing that, producing an "ouch" from him.  The lady thought it was a comment on her so he  had to improvise quickly to get out of the situation. He didn't actually say "ouch", however.  That was as the subtitles rendered it.  He said something like "auer", which is very much like what some English-speakers would say

I was also amused when the cadet did not stay restrained for long when he got his lady into the Chambre separee.  After drinking some champagne with her, he demanded that she get it all off -- domino, dress and all.  Navy directness, I guess.

A small bonus in the show which I enjoyed was in the first dancing scene.  It included a tall thin male dancer with a big conk in black garb and a top hat who reminded me powerfully of John Cleese doing "silly walks".  Not sure it was intentional but it was amusing. He actually did well to leap about so much.  At one stage he took his hat off and we could see a bald spot in his hair.  So he was no spring chicken.

I was surprised that the "Englishman" (Serafin) was portrayed as making a social class mistake.  Social class is pretty influential in Germany but to this day it is even more so in England.  An  educated Englishman would NEVER make a class mistake as gross as that portrayed.  Heuberger must not have known the English well. There were actually several points in the show where the English were mocked. Serafin's mistake was inviting the loud and brassy "sister" of a Paris cafe proprietor (undoubtedly a rather "available" lady) to a formal middle-class dinner.  It at least reduced the tension that she arrived late.

Her gaffes were epic:  Mistaking In flagrante as a place in Italy and not at all knowing what a Tintoretto was.  But she was indulged.

Like most Australians, I have no time for social class myself but it is a central concept in sociology, which I taught for a number of years.  I even have a published  academic journal article on the subject. See also here. So maybe I know something about it anyway.

And another social class oddity was that "Hortense" had a rather familiar relationship with the family who employed her.  I suppose that master/servant relationships do differ and this one was simply towards one end of the spectrum. The maid had an out-of-class role in Fledermaus too, particularly in the recent Moerbisch version.

And when the servant "borrowed" from her mistress a garment to wear to the ball, that was, of course, another re-run of Fledermaus.

And the show ends up in classical operetta style with lots of laughs.  The scene of three men marching up together to confront  a line of three ladies was a great comic invention. But all three couples were happily reunited. After all the dramas, they end up flying into one-another's arms:  How it should be but not always so in real life.

I should mention that the show was presented as a Rahmenerzaehlung -- a story within a story.  The "outer" and quite minor story was of Tolouse Lautrec telling what happened at the Parisian opera ball to his nice-looking young red-headed model. It was quite a nice little story but quite tangential to the whole.  I suppose it was a way of getting a narrator on stage.  Narrators are not common in shows these days but they have their uses.

The bit I liked about that story was when the model imagined the fallout from the ball. She saw the galumphing Caesare-Aristide as triumphant because of the lies that "Feodora" told about his performance in the Chambre Séparée. Crazy!


The model


Four good scenes, Serafin discovering the Parisian ladies in the first one.  Some good shots of Iwanowa in the second one. And the Chambre séparée song in the final one.  The lady in sky-blue is the maid "Hortense"

Putting up film clips one after another does seem to get YouTube muddled rather often but let me try it. I try below to put up the 1964 clip of the  Chambre séparée scene -- with Peter Alexander and the ultra-feminine Ingeborg Hallstein.  I like the voices better there. If it doesn't come up, it is here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/OYP4jTTa5tM



Note the tiny gesture she uses to tell her escort to blow out the candles. Hallstein is good at tiny but expressive gestures.  She really is the ultimate female.

Other details

At the risk of exposing myself as a naif in these matters, I was rather surprised at the continual rain of confetti (if that is what it was) at the Paris opera ball. In the days of my youth, I went to quite a few balls at Brisbane's much acclaimed but now lost "Cloudland" ballroom but I never encountered anything like that. It has been said that a significant fraction of Brisbane's population was conceived in the "Cloudland" carpark so there is no doubt that it was a good ballroom. I just have memories of some lovely ladies at that time. The only one whose name I can remember is Zita Trevethan

It would be rather silly of me to try to explain all the jokes and allusions in the show -- so I won't try  -- but but perhaps I should explain what the "three sacred things" were that Paris and Vienna were said to have.  Paris had Napoleon Bonaparte, the Red Mill (Moulin Rouge) cabaret and the opera ball.  Vienna had Sissi, the Prater and their Opernball.  "Sissi" was the late, admired, and still commemorated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. There is to this day a museum devoted to her in Vienna.  And the Prater is a large public park which includes the oldest amusement park in the world -- plus many other attractions.

And what was the bergère that Serafin was asked to inspect? A bergère is basically a big comfortable French armchair with an upholstered back and armrests.  In this case, however, it would have been a fancy and upholstered chair for two. You see one in the clip with Hallstein above

I thought I might also say a word on what a "Domino" is when it comes to ladies' clothing. They are basically a 19th century phenomenon.  They were all-covering garments often worn to masked balls and the like. They are a way of hiding in plain sight, so were well adapted to the story in this show.  As you can see from the picture of "Hortense" below, they had hoods and big sleeve and usually had fancy trims. They are usually in mostly dark colors so in this show the pinkness stood in for fancy trims and helped them to be easily identified by the adventure-seeking males.  The inside of the hoods, however, was black.



And the journalist's half-remembered dream from the future was a bit of a challenge.  Who were "Birdstein" and "Caravan", for instance"?  Fairly easy: "Bernstein" and "Karajan".  But the others were harder.  "Nelly" was presumably Grace Kelly and "Pallas" was "Maria Callas", but that is as far as I can confidently go.  Was one of the others Jacqueline du Pré?  Maybe. I have her wonderful recording of the Elgar cello concerto.

The massive hair arrangements that the ladies wore had a certain attractiveness.  Like the holy apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11), I like a lot of hair on the head of a lady.  But they were rather obviously wigs on this occasion so I could have done without that.  The wigs really sprouted when they went to the ball. Only "Hortense" seemed to be showing her own hair throughout.

Translations

One word that was wisely left untranslated in the generally excellent subtitles was "Kobold".  "The fairies" or "gremlins" would work as translations  in some contexts but basically it is a German myth that has no exact translation.  Kobolds were mischievous spirits with no clear equivalent in the English-speaking world.

An odd thing about German was that the pink dominoes were variously described as "nelke" or "rosa".  Both are names of flowers in German.  There is no dedicated word for "pink" in German as there is in English.  I gather that "rosa" is the most common translation of "pink" but roses come in a many colors -- as any Texan will tell you.

I wonder a little why Chambre Séparée is used in the show when perfectly good German alternatives would seem to be available -- Privatzimmer, Privatkammer and even Privatgemach.  I guess that use of French is seen as more sophisticated.  There is an impression of the French to that effect in the English-speaking world too. If sexual promiscuity equates to sophistication, I guess the impression is an accurate one. An amusing thing is that the expression as a whole is German rather than French.  The French say "cabinet particulier".  Boringly "private room" in English, of course.

As Obama might say, let me make that perfectly clear:  Although it uses French words, Chambre Séparée is actually a German expression.

And a VERY small point that pleased me:  I noticed that in the Ueberall song "Angele" referred to Naples as "Neapel". Most likely that is normal German practice but it is quite sophisticated. In Tuscan Italian the city is Napoli.  But  "Neapel" is how Neapolitanians refer to their city.  And what a marvellous example of continuity that is. When the Greeks founded the city around 2,800 years ago they called it "Neapolis" -- meaning "New city". And "Neapel" is very close to that ancient Greek name: Marvellous.  Memory preserved over an amazing stretch of time.

Seeing it is such a big feature of the show, I thought I might give below one version of the words of the Im Chambre Séparée song, followed by my translation of it into English.


Geh'n wir in's chambre séparée
Let's go into the private room
Ach, zu dem süssen tete a tete,
Oh! for the sweet head to head
dort beim Champagner und beim Souper
There with champagne and supper
man alles sich leichter gesteht!
One more easily confesses everything

Ach, kommen Sie, mein Herr,
O come my sir
Dass ich gestehe,
 That I may confess,
was längst für Sie ich schon empfinde.
What I have long felt for you
So kommen Sie zu Tête à tête
So come to the head to head
Dass ich gestehe; ja, gestehe,
That I may confess, yes confess
Was längst; ja, längst
What for a long time, yes a long time
Für sie ich, ja, empfinde.
What I have felt for you

Geh'n wir in's chambre séparée
Let's go into the private room
Ach, zu dem süssen tete a tete,
Oh! for the sweet head to head
dort beim Champagner und beim Souper
There with champagne and supper
man alles sich leichter gesteht!
One more easily confesses everything


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Giuditta (Judith)




I hesitated for some time before buying the recording  of Giuditta.  With music by Lehar and a performance from Moerbisch (2003) how could I go wrong?  I just did not like the synopsis.  The ending was undoubtedly romantic but it was not happy!  That is usually not allowed in operetta!  No wonder Harald Serafin (for once) did not cast himself in any of the parts.

I cannot for the life of me see why the librettists did not change the ending to a happy one.  It would have been very easy to do.  If I were Intendant, I would.  As it is, the ending was more like grand opera than operetta.   But a lot of people like that, I suppose. I am not the first to note the similarity with "Carmen".  It was Lehar's last work, appearing in 1934.

It was however rather redeemed for me by having Montazeri as the tenor.  And it was amusing to see little Julia Bauer in a "second banana" role again.  She did well.

"Giuditta" was played by Natalia Ushakova, a good-looking green-eyed Russian soprano born in Uzbekistan in 1979.  She debuted in opera in 1999 and has had a rather meteoric career since. She is now an Austrian citizen.  She would have been 24 in this show.  You can hear the power of her voice best here, in a clip from "Tosca".  And here you can hear her giving an impeccable rendition of Puccini's wonderful O mio babbino caro.


Ushakova in a studio shot.  With good looks and a great voice how could she go wrong?

But "Giuditta" was just too neurotic a lady for me, something that Ushakova played extremely well. "Giuditta" had no resilience at all.  But that was part of the role.  She was supposedly of Spanish and North African ancestry: A Mediterranean person.

And the gap between the people of North-Western Europe and the Mediterraneans is well-known-- emotional Southerners and cool Northerners. And both groups are aware of it.  Italians tend to regard Germans as very alarming people, for instance.

I am of the Northwestern Volk.  And it is an easily definable Volk.  It is simply people who speak Germanic languages and trace their ultimate ancestry to the shores of the Baltic --  the Germanic people -- whether Germans, English, Scandinavians or the German lands more broadly defined (Swiss, Flanders etc).  We are all pretty similar in our restrained emotionality.

But in the South emotions run riot.  And Giuditta was certainly a case of that.  Women routinely choose military men as partners because they are real men.  But they all "wait" for their men while their men are on deployment. Giuditta had no conception of that.

Anyway the Giuditta lady just seemed nutty to me.  Compare that with my favourite operetta  -- Wiener Blut -- where Hallstein is as cool as a cucumber throughout.  A great difference but still lots of laughs.  There weren't many in Giuditta

I use the German word Volk because it is right for what I mean.  English has no equivalent word.  It is NOT "Right wing".  The old Communist East Germany put VEB (Volkseigener Betrieb) on all its products.  "Right-wing" Communists?

The clip below is of Ushakova singing her Giuditta theme song (Meine Lippen, sie kuessen so heiss).  Rather low rez, I am afraid




Friday, September 4, 2015


Die Herzogin von Chicago by Kalman

The American "Mary Lloyd" above, heiress to a Chicago sausage fortune

This 1928 operetta is ostensibly about America but is really all about the feelings of Imre Kalman. Kalman was a Hungarian Jew who wrote a string of very popular operettas in the '20s and '30s. His music was so popular that Hitler even offered to make him an honorary Aryan. Kalman declined and wisely left Germany, ending up in the scorned America. And this operetta embodies Kalman's reflections and feelings about America and Europe. And it is a very European perspective. 

The DVD I have is of a 2005 performance from the Volksoper in Vienna, sung in German. I see that the show had an extended run there so was obviously highly regarded by Viennese audiences

America

To this day Europeans tend to regard Americans as uncultured people who care only about money. That is of course a great overgeneralization and oversimplification. In most countries the average people are uncultured from an elite perspective but that takes no account of the diversity in the country concerned. Even if only 1% of America's 300 million population are cultured by some arbitrary standard, that means there are 3 million of those splendidly cultured beings in America. And 3 million is a pretty fair potential audience for a show.

At the risk of drifting away from Kalman, I should perhaps mention smart fraction theory here. Originally proposed by the pseudonymous "La Griffe du Lion", smart fraction theory holds that the achievements of any given nation, society or culture are determined not by how smart the population as a whole is but rather by how smart the top people in the society are. I agree with the Bitter Clinger that Griffe's numbers are implausible (they were only meant as an exploration) but the general idea seems sound and has had some empirical support. So evaluations of a society based on what is normal or average can underestimate the potential and productivity in any field of that society.

The prime example in support of the theory is of course high-achieving Israel, which has an average IQ but a clear smart fraction in the Ashkenazim, but the same is also probably true for the USA -- which for various reasons has long drawn the smartest people of other societies to it -- including Kalman and about 5 million other Ashkenazi Jews. And America's scientific and artistic productivity is indeed great. The whole world sings American popular songs, for instance. And American performers spread their wings worldwide. Despite Europe's own great productivity in the arts, American sopranos, tenors and baritones still show up rather a lot on European stages. The leading lady in this show is in fact Canadian, if that counts. 

I doubt that I really need to give examples but the 1975 Stuttgart performance of Zigeuner Baron that I have has TWO attractive young American sopranos as leading ladies  -- with the powerful voice of Ellen Shade and the  small but sweet voice of  Janet Perry. And the Zuerich Oper 2004 version of Lustige Witwe features the big Californian Rodney Gilfry as the hilariously tormented Graf.

And even American composers are making a mark. The only interesting composer in the second half of the 20th century, in my view, is Philip Glass, an American Jew.

But Kalman can be forgiven his jaundiced feelings. Russia was by far the biggest loser from WWI but Austria was badly hit too, losing something like 90% of its territory. And Kalman is clearly a heartfelt European who misses terribly the brilliant cultural, intellectual and musical life of the great city that was prewar Vienna. Via his main character, he even hopes plaintively at a couple of points in the show that it will one day return. So Europe in the '20s is in alarming disarray and America seems crass. 

Does Kalman have any consolation? He does. His gypsies. Kalman has what could almost be called a manic and delusory fascination with gypsies. His operetta Graefin Mariza can be seen as one long hymn to them. So in "Chicago Princess" they are also portrayed as a great consolation. They were all that Kalman could hang on to. Lehar debunked that, though.

But the music was brilliant, very lively and varied. It probably tells you all you need to know about '20s popular music. It was in fact written in the late '20s and was a deliberate attempt by a brilliant composer to capture what was characteristic of the music of that period.

The casting

The Prince is well cast in the person of the Iranian-Austrian tenor Mehrzad Montazeri. I watch and re-watch the show mainly to see him singing.  I usually like the leading ladies best in an operetta but Eberhard Waechter in my DVD of  Graf von Luxemburg is another instance where I liked the male lead best. And in the 2008 performance of Im Weissen Roessl at Moerbisch, my favourite actor is Klaus-Dieter Lerche, not for his singing but for his expert delivery of his hilarious part as Herr Gieseke.

Montazeri is a big well-built man with a big voice and a big presence. He looked and sounded like a prince. I like to see a manly man in the leading male role and Montazeri is a most manly man. The star of the show is presumably meant to be the "Duchess of Chicago" but, although Canadian mezzo Norine Burgess (what an Anglo name! She is definitely one of my Volk) was perfectly competent in that role, it was Montazeri who stood out and more or less stole the show. He seemed to have a natural good humour which showed -- particularly towards the end.

He also had an irrefragable dignity, which I liked.  And his part  as a conservative advocate of monarchy would be either a mystery or a folly to Americans but it went down well with me. I am a conservative monarchist happily living in a monarchy! God save the Queen! So I actually agreed with most of what the main character was preaching!   Did Kalman really have a soft spot for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy?  It seems so.

It was perhaps a bit mad to have an Iranian singing the great song about the wonders of Viennese music around the middle of the show but he did it so well that I cannot imagine it done better. I think he has just become my favourite operatic tenor -- with useless apologies to the late Josef Schmidt. Montazeri is these days an Austrian citizen and has lived in Austria for nearly 40 years so I think we can now gladly call him an Austrian.

His part in this show was certainly a great one for him. He was cast to portray a great range of feelings and did so convincingly.  It was a much more sympathetic part than his part as the lover of the half-mad Giuditta in the opera of that name.


Norine Burgess as "Mary" did not have a sympathetic part but she came across well in the canoe scene. She has been much praised for her role in this show and I can see why.  She is a a very expressive lady with a very mellow voice who  gets all her notes with great ease.  Most of us like to greet life with a smile and I assume that she does too.  But the part required her to express a whole gamut of negative emotions -- anger, scorn, horror, hauteur etc. -- and her face did that well. Her face when dancing with the King was quite amazingly expressive -- mostly of horror!   She is one talented actress as well as a superb singer.  

She also seemed to be rather tall, which generally goes down well.  Many fashion models are over 6' tall.  I would like to be able to document her height precisely.  Sadly, however, if the age of operetta ladies is usually a State Secret their height is even more so.  Nobody mentions it

And I very much liked the performance of Renée Schüttengruber as "Rosemarie", the betrothed princess. Let me say that again: "I very much liked the performance of Renée Schüttengruber as "Rosemarie", the betrothed princess". She looked good and acted with charm. Her voice seemed to me to have something Chinese about it but it would need wiser people than me to pinpoint anything there. I think it is a pity that she did not keep the same hairstyle throughout, though.  The 1920s water wave she started out with looked a lot better than her later frizz.  Nobody should do that to blonde hair.

And I did not initially recognize Sándor Németh as "Perolin", the follicularly deprived politician. I last saw him as the manic dancer in my 1970s performance of Csardasfuerstin. Time has marched on.  I am delighted to see him still going well. He did at one stage burst into a short bit of fancy footwork, to the surprise of his fellow politician. He still had the spirit.

The royal guardsmen were a bit sad. They had no skill at drill at all. They were very obviously actors pretending to be soldiers. Montazeri had a good military bearing, though -- as befits the Hussar's uniform he wore for most of the show.  If you want to see what good drill looks like watch China's recent parade in celebration of victory over Japan.  The marching starts around the 11 minute mark.  Truly formidable. No-one in his right mind would take on the PLA.

Perhaps I should mention here that the uniform Montazeri wore for most of the show was a Hussar's uniform.  You can tell that by the decorative horizontal bands across front of the coat. Hussars were a form of light cavalry invented in Hungary but which subsequently spread throughout most of Europe.  Young men of the European nobility were expected to enlist in the armed forces  (the men of our Royal family still do) and most of them went into the Hussars.

The story

The story is filled with depictions of American crassness and penurious Europeans who are prepared to sell their souls for American money. Rich American ladies refreshing the fortunes of impoverished British and European aristocrats were, of course, long a frequent phenomenon. Winston Churchill was the product of one such union.

So a blase American heiress decides she wants to "buy" herself a European Prince with all the trimmings so goes to the mythical and impoverished land of Sylvaria to do so. Judging by the Cyrillic letters on the local newspaper briefly displayed at one point (some sort of Gazeta), the setting was probably somewhere in what was for a time Yugoslavia.  But they also seemed to speak Hungarian -- so that is pretty confusing.  Hungarian does not use Cyrillic.

She finds that she is genuinely attracted to the handsome and principled Prince of the country but they have a culture clash. She is a product of the "Roaring 20's" jazz age who likes to dance the Charleston while he is a traditional and conservative European devoted to the waltz and all things European. The waltz ALWAYS gets good press in operettas. But 1920 to 1933 was the Prohibition era in the USA so the usual glorification of champagne and drinking generally was absent.

The show was in fact cast as a contest between the Charleston and the walz.  As we now know, the walz won hands down and the Charleston is no more.  I am no dancer but as far as I can see, America's big contribution to dance was Rock 'n Roll. But Kalman was not to know that.

And, in good operetta style, there was a misdirected letter that threw the lovers into temporary disarray. It was actually a telegram. Does anybody remember what they were? I sent a few in my day, with one I wrote in Italian being still remembered.

There is also a second string story where "Bondy", the servant of the "Duchess", runs off with "Rosemarie", the betrothed European princess. The story there is so corny that it could almost be mealie pap, if I am allowed to break into Afrikaans. The servant convinces the princess that he is in the movies and wants to cast her in one. She loves it, of course. Ladies rather like being noticed (even little girls look to see who is watching them) and being in a movie is being noticed writ large. 

But even when he confesses that he is actually a nobody, she forgives him and encourages him to continue the fantasy. That scene -- where she says "We are still here" -- really was charmingly done. I felt a bit teary about it.  And she then runs off with him with marriage in mind. All Hollywood would understand that (or at least idealize that), I think. So operetta's usual two happy endings are delivered.  

The production

The production was a very modern one, which I could have done without. The bald ladies with thin legs dancing to an aborted Beethoven theme were particularly revolting IMHO. But I think they were meant to be. And I thought the device of "Bondy" ("Mary's" servant)  running around always holding a large film canister was simply tedious.  

The whole pretend filming in the show was a bit tedious but it did at least serve as a narration.  Having a narrator in a show is uncommon these days but has plenty of precedent. And "Bondy" (Wolfgang Gratschmaier) put a lot of energy into the part, which kept it alive

And the scenes of the Prince dancing with the young sister of his betrothed were pretty weird. But this is operetta, of course. I guess I just didn't get the point.  My bad!  Is it in praise of kid sisters?  Beats me!

The subtitles were very badly done, sometimes in very rough English -- English words in German word-order, for instance -- and they flipped off the screen far too quickly. But they sufficed. Some things were not translated at all so I was glad I have some knowledge of German. 

There were bits of gibberish, some of which appeared to be Hungarian and some of which were a jumble of schoolboy French (including L'Etat C'est Moi!) and bits of English (e.g. "bungalow").  It must have been there for some reason but again that passed me by. I think the production was a bit on the "too clever" side in a number of ways.

The Symbolism

I am not sure who is behind the prolific symbolism in the show but I suspect that most of it came from the  Intendant at the Volksoper rather than from Kalman.  Some of it was clear and some Delphic.  That Bondy wanted a medal with a star on it rather than a cross was clear enough.  It was a reminder that this show was the work of a Jew.  The star was the star of David.

And the unopenable locket was clearly a reference to a marriage which would  NOT take place.  And when Bondy gets the locket, he also gets the girl, of course. But beyond that it gets hairy.

I THINK I can guess what the cartoon scene was all about. Dancing and learning new dances is a central issue in the story and there are online various "how to dance" lessons, some of which are in cartoon form. The producers of this show were apparently amused enough by them to bring them more to life.

And I thought I got the scene where a man comes on stage in blackface and then has the blacking cleaned off him. I saw that as predicting the increasing acceptance by the Prince of "n*gger" music but the post-show notes on the disk tell me that it was more than that.  It was apparently a sort of tribute to the popular Weimar-style jazz opera Jonny spielt auf by Krenek. That opera also dwelt on the collision of American and European cultures.  There was apparently a performance of Jonny spielt auf in the late 20s where a black saxophonist had his sax grabbed off him by a Nazi sympathizer who then proceeded to play it himself. So the episode in Die Herzogin von Chicago is an allusion to that.  Complicated!

Political incorrectness

And I must admit that I did have to laugh at the political "incorrectness" of the show. For a start, the appearance of "Mary" in the canoe scene wearing a big "Indian" head-dress would not at all pass muster in America these days.  It would be "cultural appropriation".  Though why that is bad escapes me.

And jazz was repeatedly described as "n*gger music" for instance. I can't entirely fault that. American hysteria about whites using that word does seem absurd to me. Why can blacks use it but not whites?  Anyway, the terms were used in this 2005 performance from Austria 

I think it was about 2005 that the High Court of Australia ruled that "n*gger" was not offensive in Australia -- so perhaps we have some unexpected convergence between Australia and Austria there. 

The post-show notes were however, a bit apologetic about using now-deplored words in the show.  They said that the operetta was a work of its time and they wanted to be historically correct about it.  They actually called their staging of the show "archaeological" -- because the work been so long forgotten. They saw themselves as reviving for German audiences a work that was banned in the '30s and had subsequently been lost from sight.  I am very glad that they did revive it.  It is basically just Viennese froth and bubble but light entertainment can be good for the soul too.

The finale

In the end attraction overcomes culture clash. The Prince grabs "Mary" and plants a big kiss on her. Very decisive!  And his big smile portrays a happy ending to the show most convincingly.  And a compromise about the dancing is found. Mary dances a waltz and the Prince does a Charleston, which he persuades himself is really a sort of Csardas! Done accelerando, I suppose that could be (at a stretch).

He does at one stage sing well for a Csardas himself.  A pity the costume department did not put the "Hungarian" ladies into the traditional red skirts -- but maybe it had something to do with the lighting.  The same ladies were very fair-skinned "Indians" later on!

A singing Prince! No wonder "Mary" liked him! Burgess must have liked that kiss too. Montazeri is definitely "tall, dark and handsome". With his brilliant big smile, he even looked good in a cowboy outfit. Did Canada get its mezzo back after that show? Perhaps not immediately. She has three kids at home and a figure like a tree so I imagine that she doesn't get a lot of action normally.  Though she does have a pretty face.  She has split from her singer husband so who knows?

More detail of the plot here. There is a video of the second half of the show here.  The guy in the dressing gown is "Bondy", though why he wears that I am not sure. The lady is in the bath by that stage and he does attend her there so maybe it is some sort of bathrobe.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Die Dollarprinzessin

The scene above is of Alice dictating typing to Freddy

The story

The show is about America imagined from Austria of the late Belle Époque era.  First performed in 1907. My version is a cinematic performance from 1971 with Kurt Graunke and his merry band. Critics tend to pan these "made for TV" performances but beggars can't be choosers.  They are the only way of accessing some operettas these days.

It's an amusing fantasy of an American billionaire who entertains himself by employing impoverished European aristocrats as servants.

He also has a good looking daughter ("Alice", played by Gabriele Jacoby) with rather feminist views.  So can a handsome European man (Gerhart Lippert as "Freddy") subdue her independence and get her to pursue and marry him?  Of course.  This is operetta!

Her initial role was as a cynical woman who thought that money alone mattered and that women should rule the roost.  Her attitudes were in fact much like what I hear about JAPs (Jewish American Princesses).  The JAPs are basically a sad lot as the actually available Irvings and Sheldons can rarely satisfy them.  Alice, however, has a weak spot for good looks and falls in love with "Freddy" (Gerhart Lippert) a handsome man who is also a strong character.  

So she ends up vowing subservience!  She gives her life to him!  ("Ich geb' mein Leben dir allein")! Then she joins him in singing that in their togetherness, each Haelt alles Glueck der Welt ("holds all the happiness of the world"!).  And when she discovers that he is rich after all, she says "Ich liebe dich trotzdem" ("I love you anyway").

Fabulously romantic but feminists would be ill about it!

And the rich paterfamilias is also won over by "Olga", a shapely European circus lady who pretends to be an aristocrat. And in the end all the parties are happy with their loved partners!

There is even a third theme (with "Daisy") where another challenged couple end up married too.  A true Viennese operetta!  THREE happy couples!

The Dollarprinzessin title comes from Freddy's big aria in the middle of the show -- where he refuses to marry Alice as  merely a business transaction.  In true operetta style he loves her and both of them know it but difficulties have to be overcome! He accuses the various young women from rich families who are present at the engagement ball as being "dollar princesses" who are basically spoilt, think money can buy everything and have poor taste:  A superb way of getting a confident lady really interested in him. It works!

But it is also of course a typical European view of America -- as tasteless money-worshippers.  That view survives to this day.  We also see it in Die Herzogin von Chicago by Kalman. Dollarprinzessin was however 20 years earlier.

The cast

Imposing German singer Tatjana Iwanow was very convincing as the seductive Olga.  She was a fine figure of a woman and good looking generally.  She looked in the prime of life but sadly, died only 9 years later of cancer at the age of 54. In life she married 3 times so her looks were obviously appreciated outside the show.  Her father was a Russian Czarist army officer, hence the Russian name.

"Olga" in the centre;  "Miss Mibbs" to the left

The Austrian Gabriele Jacoby as Alice was also a fine figure of a woman  -- a clever lady with both a beautiful face and good "architecture", as they say in operetta.

She also had striking blue eyes and an expressive way of using them. Sopranos vary a lot in the way they use their eyes for expressive purposes and they use their eyes in quite different ways too.  Jacoby is the champion of the sideways glance, which she used to good humorous effect.  Other singers must use that glance too but I can't recall noticing it.  The star who uses her eyes most expressively would have to be Ingeborg Hallstein, followed closely by Dagmar Schellenberger.  And I would put Jacoby third after them. She is definitely worth watching!
  
An unusual feature of her looks is that she has a pronounced "strong" chin, one that would normally be seen on a man only.  Women tend to have receding chins, which is why men with receding chins are often seen as "weak".  

The mediating factor leading to a strong chin is almost certainly a high testosterone level in utero and that should continue at least in part into later life.  And one thing we know is that testosterone gives women a strong sex drive, often strong enough to survive the "change of life".  A big proportion of women lose their sex drive entirely after menopause, being barely able to remember "what that was all about".  Not so women with good testosterone levels.  So I will speculate, with no hopes of ever finding out, that Jacoby was pretty good in bed, as well as all her other admirable attributes.  She apparently didn't marry until she was 44, which could mean many things.

She was born in 1944 so was 27 at the time of the show so youthful looks helped too. She is the daughter of Dritte Reich  superstar Marika Rökk, a Hungarian.  Her father was a prominent  director of stage and film for many years and was a Nazi party member in that era.  So she is not Jewish, even though "Jacoby" is sometimes a Jewish surname.  See her below with her billionaire "father" (Horst Niendorf) and then at her initial meeting with "Freddy". Finally as she is today, still a fine-looking woman.




Miss Mibbs was well and amusingly played by Kaete Jaenicke and Dora the Saloon proprietress played by Ingrid van Bergen was quite a character, singing in a very Marlene Dietrich sort of way. Her rather extreme makeup as she prepared her cabaret  amused me.  She would have been 40 at the time of the show. A youthful picture of her below.


And may I mention that the Austrian view of blue eyes as treu is honored.  Freddy, Alice and Olga all have pretty blue eyes.  I have not figured out exactly why  but Jacoby has really remarkable blue eyes.  I do not discount stage makeup and I do see  her false eyelashes but that cannot be a major part of it.

Other details

The singing in the show was cabaret style rather than operatic. That was pleasant and amusing enough but I did rather miss the excitement of real operatic singing.  There are some wonderful operatic arias in other operettas -- Wiener Blut, Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum etc.

And the show does to an extent reflect the time in which it was recorded rather than the time in which it was composed. At the end, for instance, "Freddy" gets his lady to go upstairs with him by just a wink.  I remember something of that myself in the party days of the '60s and '70s.

There are frequent references in the show to "Gotha" so I thought it might be worthwhile to mention that the reference is to "The Almanach de Gotha", a directory of Europe's royalty and higher nobility, from a German perspective. It gave  genealogical, biographical and titulary details of Europe's highest level of aristocracy.

A speculation:  Why is the billionaire's surname given as "Couder"?  Names in operetta are often allusory. Many of the names in Lustige Witwe refer to Montenegrin dignitaries, for instance, thus identifying "Pontevedrin" as Montenegro. "Couder" is mainly a French name but not a particularly distinguished one. It is also a rather rude piece of modern English slang. "Kauder" in German means to talk gibberish but it is hard to see a connection with that.  

At the risk of being too clever altogether, I have another idea.  The Dutch cheese known as "Gouda" is pronounced by the Dutch very similarly to the way "Couder" is pronounced in the show.  And a big boss is often referred to in American slang as "The big cheese". Did Leo Fall or one of his librettists know some Dutch?  I suspect so.

Sex roles and tradition

One should not look for serious themes in operetta but Leo Fall and his librettists clearly had one in mind in creating this show.  He pushes it in both the "Alice" and "Daisy" story.  And I think he is right! What he implies is that female assertiveness is inimical to love.  The ladies of course get their way in the end but they have to be nice about it!  

Feminists would hate it but this is in fact a celebration of traditional sex roles.  Accepting such differences and working within them is needed for good male/female relationships.  It's only modern madness that would claim otherwise.  Most  women HATE to have a man they can push around. They want a man with a mind of his own. "Daisy" says that explicitly and I have certainly seen it  in life. And equality is a snark.

Some good excerpts here.  The whole show seems to be online here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015



Fledermaus at Moerbisch


I obtained the DVD of the 1984 Covent Garden performance of Fledermaus some time back and, though it was generally very good, there were a few things I didn't like about it so I wanted to see the Moerbisch version, which, as it happens, was Harald Serafin's last production (in 2012), before handing over to Dagmar Schellenberger as Intendantin.

The casting

And I did like the Moerbisch version better. The role of "Adele" is a very important one in the show, arguably as important as "Rosalinde", so I was disappointed that the Covent Garden director cast a rather chunky-looking lady in the "Adele" role. She was just not a plausible romantic figure.  

Serafin put Austrian soprano Daniela Fally into the role and I thought she was marvellous in every way in it. She is slim, not really a great beauty, but she is certainly a great singer and actress.  When she opens her mouth wide and belts out those big soprano notes, it's Zauberfluss -- as Goethe might have said (Faust). She's a lovely lady, however you look at it.

And I am not alone in that opinion. Others have gushed over her in that role too.  I am rather lost for words after the encyclopedic praise heaped on her by others so I will just repeat one comment I particularly agreed with:  "Daniela Fally’s Adele is so charming and so brilliant that the leads seem forgettable by comparison".

And at the risk of being banal, it seems to me fitting that the home of operetta -- Austria -- should produce a brilliant operetta interpreter.  She is brilliantly expressive in an operetta role but would that be too much in other settings? Possibly

Harald Serafin seems to have put her in the role before anyone else of note so he really started the ball rolling there. The encomia I have mentioned were all later than 2012.

Fally in full voice, the "Prince" on the left and Daniel Serafin (the bat) on the right

Fally as Bardot?

Harald Serafin also put his son Daniel into a major role in the show -- as "The Bat".  But Daniel looked good and performed well so that was fine.  As a big, well-built man, I thought he fitted the dominant part of "The bat" particularly well. I like manly men in operetta. He will have done well for his career by his performance there.

I greatly dislike trouser roles and the lady chosen to play the prince at Covent garden earned the full measure of my dislike in that regard.  She was even a BALD woman (Yuk, yuk!).  At Moerbisch, however, Harald Serafin cast Ukrainian mezzo Zoryana Kushpler in the role and I didn't mind her at all.  Like a lot of people from the Slavic lands she has the rather broad face that is a legacy of the Mongol occupation so -- combined with a very severe hairstyle -- looked somewhat masculine. And, despite repeatedly declaring everything langweilig (boring) at the beginning of the show she in fact sang along and showed emotional involvement throughout most of the show.  She showed notable rapture over the czardas.  And she dominated the Duzen scene. She did well.  

The czardas scene:  The version by Kiri te Kanawa in the Covent Garden version of the show has been acclaimed as the definitive version of a czardas so how did the version in this show stack up?  How well did Viennese soprano Alexandra Reinprecht do by comparison?  I am inclined to agree that Kiri was slightly better but Reinprecht was still very good and moved around more while singing -- which added expression. Since the Csardas was originally a dance, Kiri's very static performance was quite old-fashioned

In my eccentric way, I also liked an Austrian soprano singing of her love for her Hungarian homeland.  Austria is a lot closer to Hungary (right next door) than New Zealand, where Kiri hails from.  And the association of Austria with Hungary is of course historic. 

Alexandra Reinprecht would have been in her mid-30s in 2012 (as with many sopranos, her actual DoB seems to be a State Secret) and I liked her womanly appearance in the role better than I liked the looks of Kiri te Kanawa.  For this show Serafin seems to have "borrowed" Reinprecht from the Wiener Staatsoper, where she had already played the role of Rosalinde -- so she had to be very good.

I am critical of a few things Harald Serafin did over the years  as Intendant at Moerbisch but I have no criticism of him as an actor and singer.  It is always a pleasure to see him appear in a show.  And at age 80 on this occasion he still had it all.  He adds an air of jollity and good humour to everything he does.  He of course gets to choose the role that suits him but he has great talent for what he does.  I noticed that he managed to sit and dance with Daniela Fally quite a lot.  A privilege of also being Intendant!

Harald Serafin with Fally and "Ida" in the jail scene

Young Serafin also spent a lot of time with "Ida" during the show.

I did not like "Alfred", the music teacher, much.  He sang well but he looked like a Mafioso to me.  He was in fact an Australian  -- Angus Wood.  So maybe that shows how much I know! Why he was wearing such vast boots is a question.  "Ugg boots" were an Australian invention so maybe that was it.  An amusing Austrian impression of Australia!

As the butt of most of the jokes, Herbert Lippert, as "Eisenstein" undoubtedly acted and sang well.  He acted very amusingly as the fake lawyer.  Reinprecht acted well in that bracket too.  She showed there how expressive she can be.

There were quite a lot of grisettes (can-can type dancers) in the show so there were a lot of lovely legs on display. As I am something of a leg-man, I liked that. My last (and I mean last) wife was 5'11" tall and a lady that tall has to have a lot of leg. She had lots else as well, of course.  In pre-emptive reply to the usual feminist challenge, I think I had pretty good legs myself in my day.  They were my only good bit!

At first, I thought that the duzen scene led by young Serafin was an interpolation.  Young people in the German lands do normally these days address one-another "per du" (informally) so it was perfectly contemporary to have Daniel Serafin encouraging that usage, but I could not imagine Strauss and his librettists even thinking of such a scene in 1874.  Millocker used such speech for comic effect in Bettelstudent (1882) but this show was praising it.  It seems however that I was wrong about it being an interpolation.  The Covent Garden version had the same scene -- totally unsubtitled!  That was a coward's way out of an admittedly difficult translation task.  More attempt to praise informality could surely have been attempted. As it was, that scene would have been pretty obscure to the English listeners.

Anyway, ending that scene with the Strauss "Donner und Blitz" polka certainly woke everybody up.  And the constant Strauss waltzes throughout the show were wonderful, of course.

Humour in the show

The whole show was of course a very good farce, but, aside from that, the funny bits were mostly in the second half of the show, particularly in the localizations. Stage shows are very often localized for the particular audience so the localizations this time were different from the Covent Garden offering.  The Covent Garden show even included a performance by "Sharl" Aznavour for some inscrutable reason.  Even Aznavour himself looked a bit embarrassed to be there on that occasion. 

The opening scene with the drunken prison guard was particularly rich with humorous localizations this time. It was one big comedy scene, in fact. There was mention of Lucas Auer, an Austrian racing driver, and of David Alaba, an Austrian-born black footballer.  

And the Finanzministerin (Maria Fekter) was mocked for using an English expression in her speech -- the word "shortly".  That usage became quite famous and even gets a mention in German Wikipedia.  It related to an EU financial crisis:  

Im Rahmen einer EU-Krisensitzung zur Schuldenkrise am 13. Juli 2011 meinte Fekter: „Die Zeit, die wir uns gegeben haben, ist shortly. Und auf Ihre Frage, was das heißt, sage ich Ihnen: shortly, without von delay“. Im Dezember 2011 wurde „shortly, without von delay“ zu Österreichs „Spruch des Jahres 2011“ gewählt". ("In December 2011 "shortly, without von delay" was chosen as Austria's Saying of the Year").  

That saying was actually repeated in the operetta. It seems to have been very funny to Austrians. With their own massive cultural and historical inheritance I suppose that any any deference to another culture seems absurd.

There were actually a lot of references to Austrian current affairs in the drunken scene and only a minority of them got a laugh from the audience.  I actually found some of them funnier than the audience did.  There were mocking references to "transparency", which Obama critics could relate to, and the tendency of witnesses at official enquiries to have very bad memories was familiar. That was in fact heavily satirized by the drunken jailer.  There were also critical references to political party funding so once again one has to say: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"

Another entertainment in the show was various mentions of Moebisch in the script. The Moerbisch mosquitoes were yet again complained of and pity was shown for Moerbisch singers.  There was even a silly rhyme of Moerbisch with "Dervish"

The drunker jailer also contributed to the self-referencing.  When "Alfred" sang an invitation for him to sing, he replied: "No.  I have a speaking role"

The scene of the two impostors pretending to speak French was not as well done this time.  The Covent Garden version was hilarious but this time the scene mainly seemed tedious to me.

Wrap-up

In comparing the Covent Garden and Moerbisch performances there was no contest. Both were brilliant entertainments for their respective audiences. Both the London producers and Harald Serafin had the whole world to draw on for the casting.  The difference is that Serafin knew well the rich cultural scene of his own German lands.  And he drew on that.  And in so doing he made NO mistakes. He avoided a grotesque bald woman as the Prince and he picked a brilliant young singer/actor as "Adele".  His long experience delivered the goods. 

I have given away my DVD of the Covent Garden show.  That bald woman really revolted me: She was repellent throughout -- whereas Serafin's "Prince" was actually quite warm for most of the show. The Covent Garden "Prince" was the worst bit of casting I have seen.  A great pity in an otherwise entertaining production. Even in the trouser role of Handel's Giulio Cesare, as presented in 2006 at Glyndebourne, the woman at least had hair!

Because I was comparing the Moerbisch show with the Covent Garden show rather a lot, I have focused on the casting at Moerbisch above but my general comments about the operetta from last March still stand as a response to this operetta in general.

The ending was rather jolly but for once did not feature reunited lovers.  The erring husband was however provisionally forgiven by his wife so that served as a happy ending.

I take an interest in who  gets the most applause when the actors parade at the end of a show and Harald Serafin got the big applause this time. He would by now be a beloved figure to regulars at Moerbisch so that was perfectly appropriate. For him to be still performing well at age 80 was a wonder.  A lifetime in operetta no doubt helped.

And Daniela Fally got a lot of applause too, second to Serafin --  richly deserved.  I am still smiling as I bring some of her scenes to mind. That was a good line when she claimed to have a "margarine", instead of a "migraine".  And her performance of her big aria "Mein Herr Marquis, ein Mann wie Sie" ("The Laughing Song") was triumphant, with a very satisfactory high note at the end.

There are some extensive excerpts of the show online here.  Rather low resolution, unfortunately.



Saturday, July 18, 2015


Simplicius


Composed, 1887.  Performed at Zurich Oper in 1999

I hesitated for some time before ordering this Singspiel.  I read the synopsis and was not impressed:  Too complicated and not set in an operetta-type setting.  But the music was by Strauss II so I ordered it.

And I disliked it from the beginning.  The surrealist staging was way outside my liking.  I guess some people find it amusing or interesting but I just found it tedious.  A NYC writer felt the same.  He wrote:

"David Pountney’s production is not attuned to the bulk of the work, which can hardly breathe under the weight of his heavy symbolism and the heavy, enormous sets"

I think Pountney is one of the many directors of stage performances these days who is trying to show how smart HE is rather than how good the work is.  Despicable and boring.  I paid to see the work of Strauss, not the work of Pountney. I will order nothing more if he is part of it

But I kept on watching, all the while keeping an eye on the track numbers.  I have often found that the initial tracks of an operetta DVD are very skippable so I was looking for a point in the show that seemed a good starting point for me.  And I did find one! Track 14, about half of the way through the show.  From that point on it became closer to a normal operetta, even having quite a few laughs.  And the customary two happy couples at the end, of course.  With a lot of cuts to the many slow-moving bits and a naturalistic setting, it could be quite a reasonable operetta.

And the plot was not really as complicated as it appeared to be.  The story is that a soldier killed his brother in a battle of the terrible "30 years" war that raged in Central and Western Europe during the 17th century.  He was so grief-stricken at what he had done that he put his eldest son into a monastery and retired with his little son into the forest to lead the life of a religious hermit.

But the little son eventually grew up and was taken back into society as an ingenue. Meanwhile it transpired that the father and son were of noble birth and were wanted for the purposes of marrying into another noble and rich family.  But nobody knew where the father was and nobody knew who the son was.  So a couple of other claimants emerged wanting to marry the rich bride.

They were discredited, however, and we eventually found out who the son was.  And that simplified everything so that, after a few complications, everybody got married to the spouse of their choice.  Quite a simple plot, basically, and quite in operetta style.

The involvement of Swedes in what was basically a German civil war may seem odd to some but is good history.  Der Schwed did indeed take part. Protestant King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden did  lead his troops South to help the German Protestants, having a considerable influence on the outcome. He could in fact be said to have saved Protestantism in Germany.

I watched the show three times but felt that there was nothing in it that would draw me back to it so I gave the DVD away:  No great arias, no great singing, not much in the way of jokes and repellent staging. It's just not jolly.  But Martina Jancova as Tilly is attractive and acted well, while Piotr Beczala is a classic love-stricken tenor. Some other operettas I have watched innumerable times.  When watching Wienerblut, for instance,  I start laughing long before the punchlines of the jokes arrive.

An excerpt from Simplicius  here -- with subtitles! Judge for yourself.  It's just bombast.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Der Graf von Luxemburg


This Singspiel was composed by Lehar in 1909 and was apparently set in his day.  The production I have is another cinematic version -- from 1972 -- with the late Erich Kunz as the big name -- he wielded a mean monocle!  The entire show is online here, but without subtitles.  It deserves more recognition than it usually seems to get IMHO

The story

The story is about a profligate aristocrat (played by the Austrian  baritone Eberhard Wächter) and the strange marriage arrangements he enters into to restore his finances.

And there is also of course a second string story -- about an impoverished painter and his marriage-seeking girlfriend

The painter's girlfriend, little Helga Papouschek, played well and scrubbed up well.  She has been described as a "vielseitige Schauspielerin und Sängerin".  I can see that.  She portrayed a number of moods convincingly.

And the best aria (IMHO) came from the "second string" story -- "Schauen Sie freundlichst mich an", where the artist and his nervous lover reassure one another.  They really made a very suitable couple.  It puzzles me why they  spoke per "Sie" (formal) rather than per "du" (informal), though. Something to do with tensions between them at that time, I guess.  On earlier occasions they do speak per "du"

There are quite a lot of jokes in the show but you have to be attuned to them.  I found the dropped-glove episode hilarious in its corniness, for instance. And it was an amusing touch when the unflappable Graf who had unwittingly disrespected his donor on being introduced to him simply replied Sehr angenehm ("pleased to meet you") on being apprised of his mistake.

Early in the show (around the 7 minute mark online) you can see quite a bit of an attractive barmaid with a well-filled blouse whom I thought might have been mentioned in the credits -- but she was not.  A barmaid dancing with a prince is a very low-probability event -- but this is operetta.  I love it.

And, as seems common in operetta, alcohol is something of a star.  Mostly it was skolling Schnapps in this case but we did get around to the champagne eventually. And the birdbath cut-glass champagne glasses they used in the end are just like the old-fashioned ones that I have.  I don't agree with the fashion for champagne flutes at all at all.  Very inelegant.

The plot is typical operetta absurdity, though notes accompanying  the DVD suggest that similar things did happen in real life  at the time.  And the ending was very much as one expects of operetta, with THREE happy couples getting married.  After having watched two operettas that violated that formula -- Paganini and Zarewitsch, it was a welcome return to form.  

In summary:  A great romance with a marvellously happy ending. I liked the way the baritone's lady mostly looked and sang over his shoulder after they had accepted one-another. She looked best in those later scenes in my undoubtedly wicked opinion. She looks better happy.  They certainly made a most convincing couple.  I would be moderately surprised if he did not get into her pants after hours.

The cast

Erich Kunz played Basil, the Polish Prince and delegate to the Austrian Reichsrat.  He of course does the part very convincingly, as indeed do all the singers.  The costumes were all well done -- with very big hats on the ladies at times and big and very luxurious-looking sable collars on the coats worn by the men.

Erich Kunz gets his girl

The leading soprano, the long-necked Lilian Sukis, of Lithuanian origins, is now an old lady in her mid-70s but had a  lily-like and languid attractiveness in this performance.  She was particularly associated with the Bavarian State Opera in her day.  She was both an excellent soprano and a beautiful woman.  Hard to  beat!

The leading man was the late Eberhard Wächter, an Austrian baritone of some distinction in his day, though he was new to me. That he became Intendant of the Wiener Staatsoper is a considerable recognition of his artistry.  I did like his looks -- almost hypermasculine, with a big heavy head and a strong jaw.  It's a characteristic I have seen in other big male parts in operettas.  Having such characteristics is clearly an advantage in getting good parts in operetta.  I think of Rodney Gilfry in my copy of Die Lustige Witwe and Rainhard Fendrich in my copy of Im weissen Roessl as other examples of that. And they all get the girl!  

So this was a show with a beautiful woman in the lead and a very  handsome man! Definitely easy on the eye.  That is a big plus in operetta, IMHO.

Wächter with Sukis

Wächter sang and acted very well, at any event. I am sad that he is deceased. He was a magnificent presence. He was undoubtedly the star of the show. He was somewhat more expressive than his lady, in my opinion, though she had a powerful line in rapt gazes. The later very romantic parts were especially well done.  They had convincing sincerity.  It was a love-at-first-sight story but since both members of the couple were good-looking, that has some plausibility.  His "come-to-me" look towards the end after his lady had unwittingly insulted him was quite brilliant.  It got him the girl too. So everyone ended up happy, in true operetta style.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A wonderful Austrian singing lady: Ute Gfrerer


Ute Gfrerer is one of my favorite operatic sopranos.  But despite having performed widely and often and for many years, there is no Wikipedia entry for her so I thought I might put a few notes together here that might fill a gap.  I should put this up on Wikipedia itself but anything I put up there gets deleted.  Wikipedia seems to be a subculture of its own with rules that I do not fit

Below is a picture of Gfrerer that shows something I particularly like --  her big smile.  

 

I have watched her in both the Zurich 2004 performance of Die Lustige Witwe and in the 1998 Moerbisch performance of Der Vogelhaendler -- very different roles but well sung and well acted in both cases.

She turned 50 this year, which means she was born in 1965.    She was born in Carinthia in Austria, daughter of an innkeeper, with three sisters, all of whom sang.  She now lives in Boston.  She updates her Facebook page fairly often.  See here.  It's mostly in English

Her musical history is extensively covered here.  Let me reproduce a marvellous vignette from that:

"In fact, singing is so integral to the Austrian social fabric, that a performer in Austria might find their audience joining in on their performances. Gfrerer had one such transcendent experience while recording one of her live concert performances in Austria, where she sang a traditional folk song from her countryside. "When I got to the second verse, the audience began humming along with me," recalls Gfrerer, "Then in the last verse, they all started singing in 4-part harmony, and it was so beautiful. It could only happen in Austria!"

Amazing.  Singing along is one thing but singing along in 4-part harmony is another. Austria is certainly a superpower where great music is concerned.

There is a very good 2012 interview with her here that contains a lot of personal reflections -- In German.

In her early years she was particularly interested in operetta but in more recent times she has had a particular devotion to the music of the prolific Kurt Weill.  She is regarded as a leading interpreter of it, in fact. 

She also shows her versatility here with a 2013 rendition of Piaf's famous song La Vie en Rose.  I think she outdoes Piaf.  Others have also highly praised that rendition.  I liked the way the happy Austrian lady emerged from the soulful French singer as soon as the song was over.

Gfrerer seems to be a rather jolly lady in general, though her part in Lustige Witwe was almost wholly serious.  She was even asked, rather absurdly for her, to be Eine anstaendige Frau (a respectable wife). 

Her natural talent for gaiety did however surface in the dancing scenes of Lustige Witwe.  She was in any dancing going, whether the part really called for it or  not. She even led the cabaret dancers towards the end of the show. With big smiles and shrieks, her happiness throughout the dancing was a joy to watch.  She even got herself tipped upside down in that last segment! She is a naturally happy lady, I think.  And being born both beautiful and talented why should she not be happy? 

La vie en rose is a great love song.  Just for fun, I put up an English translation below:

With eyes which make mine lower,
A smile which is lost on his lips,
That's the unembellished portrait
Of the man to whom I belong.

When he takes me in his arms
He speaks to me in a low voice,
I see life as if it were rose-tinted.

He whispers words to declare to me his love
Words of the everyday
And that does something to me.

He has entered into my heart
A piece of happiness
the cause of which I know full well.

It's him for me, me for him in life
He said that to me, swore to me "forever".

And as soon as I see him
So I feel in me
My heart which beats

May the nights on which we make love never end,
A great joy which takes its place
The trouble, the grief are removed
Content, content to die of it

When he takes me in his arms
He speaks to me in a very low voice,
I see life as if it were rose-tinted.

He whispers words to declare to me his love
Words of the everyday
And that does something to me.

He has entered into my heart
A piece of happiness
the cause of which I recognise.

It's him for me, me for him in life
He said that to me, swore to me forever.

And as soon as I see him
So do I feel in me
My heart which beats

So how does La Vie en Rose stack up as a love song against  Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum?  The words are very similar -- with one important exception: Piaf describes her love as deluded -- as seen through *rose* coloured glasses.  Whereas  the Austrian song is a very happy one: the singer describes her enraptured impressions of her man without reservation.  And the the music reflects that.  The French song has a great air of tragedy where the Austrian song has none of that.  Is love tragic to a French person and admirable to an Austrian?  That is the impression one gets.  And I am comparing two great singers of the songs concerned.  Martina Serafin's faultless voice and enraptured delivery of Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum in Vogelhaendler does every justice to that song. And she was singing it in her native German for a change, which would have helped at the margins 

And what does it tell us that the French song is infinitely better known than the Austrian one?  That tragedy is more interesting to most people?  I am inclined to think so.

And I suppose that it is rather churlish to mention that "tragic" love songs are a rather common phenomenon.  In popular culture "Both sides now"  by Joni Mitchell is a splendid example.  But in the classical music world the famous Goethe/Schubert song Gretchen am Spinnrade anticipated La vie en rose by a considerable time.

Operetta stars seem rather generally to keep pretty quiet about their personal lives but I see that Gfrerer had a daughter named Maxine in 2006.  She would have been 41 at the time.  A late run!  Pregnancies that late often indicate that the lady has had a lot of trouble finding a man who suits her.  She is such a happy lady that seems unlikely in her case.