An Overproduced “Night in Venice”

A-OP-Night in VeniceTuneful Operetta is Overproduced

When I read that Dagmar Schellenberger would become artistic director of the Seefestspiele productions, I had high hopes. Johann Strauss’ “Eine Nacht in Venedig” (A Night in Venice) has always been popular since it opened in 1838 and has enjoyed many audio recordings in German and in English. There is a DG DVD of a 1973 German television production that runs at about 96 minutes, and now the Seefestspiel production with a running time of 148 minutes is out on the Video Land label.

Many people will agree that “less is more” in any theatrical production. Today, audiences have been sold the idea that superjumbotitanic is what they want, and so many shows are overproduced to win approval. Operetta, on the whole, needs a more intimate approach

So my problem with this performance is that the production values tend to overpower the work itself. The complex plot, with obviously rewritten dialogue, is hard enough to follow without the visual distraction of several shops near the dock, the minute details of which can be seen on the video but certainly not from the colossal arena in which the audience sits; while the huge hull of an ocean liner dominates all the rest of the set.

The leads are in modern dress (which is not what a Strauss opera needs!), complete with at least one cell phone, while three nogoodnicks are tailored in Damon Runyon style. But the Venetian carnival costumes do please the eye. The music is enjoyable, the songs not very subtly delivered—nothing is subtle in this production—and the acting just adequate for the cardboard characters involved.

The basic plot concerns the plans of the Captain of the boat to seduce a Senator’s wife. As with classical comedy, the Males propose while the Females dispose. It is all very unoriginal but the music makes it worth it.

One good thing that has come out of the new regime is that the program notes have improved immensely. The older sets gave a sketchy synopsis and a seldom correct tracking list. With “A Night in Venice,” the synopses are very detailed and the tracking list is extremely detailed. Not only does the latter show which of the 60 tracks have musical numbers but also those with spoken dialogue. (Oh, there are so many with spoken dialogue! In Act III, 9 of the 15 tracks are just dialogue.)

All in all, elephantine but enjoyable.

Partners in Crime

A-Partners in Crime (New)Two Christie Novels Fare Less Than Well in New TV Series

Compared with the Poirot and Marple mysteries, Agatha Christie’s “Tommy and Tuppence” novels are decidedly third place. The idea of a young couple wanting to solve crimes in the style of other fictional detectives was a cute one and  the plots and the approach were lighthearted.

In 1982-1983, British television came out with “Partners in Crime,” in which the Beresfords, Tommy (James Warwick) and Tuppence (Francesca Annis), sleuthed around through 11 tales, one of which was “The Secret Adversary.” Warwick was rather dull, Annis a bit over the top; but they were enjoyable on a somewhat shallow level.

For some reason, it was decided to redo “The Secret Adversary” and give “N or M?” a try, with yet a new team: Jessica Raine (Tuppence) and David Williams (Tommy). Each story is given 3 parts of 55 minutes each—and I read that the British viewers’ reaction was less than favorable.

For one thing, Christie’s spy novels are never quite as good as her murder mysteries. (See “The Big Four,” the worst of the Poirot novels.) Secondly, Tommy and Tuppence are forever making the wrong moves, and in the real world they would have wound up dead in the first few hours.

Alas, Warwick’s Tommy was dull, but he looks like Olivier when compared with Williams. As some actor once said about another of the profession, he “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Nor is he handsome enough and certainly not young-looking enough for the part. Raine is a better actor but again not young-looking enough. So you can see that a much better set of leads might have helped the clunky plots. And each story having165 minutes running time merely emphasizes the awkwardness of the plots.

With an eye to a second series (which has been blurred by the poor reception of this first series), the writers established two permanent secondary characters. James Fleet plays Carter of the Secret Service, while Matthew Steer is the scientist Albert. Neither is encouraged by the director to bring any life into the proceedings.

At least the older series had the advantage of the colorful costumes of the 1920s. Here, the far drabber costumes of the 1950s are of no help. So while I usually carp about television’s taking a good series and remaking it into a bad one, here we have a not all that good a series being made into a poor one. If there is a lesson to be learned, why hasn’t it?

There is some interesting bonus material and the subtitles are much appreciated.

Lehar’s “Giuditta”

A-OP-GiudittaLehar’s Last Operetta Shows Its Weaknesses

Franz Lehar did write a lot more than “The Merry Widow,” but his last work for the musical stage, “Giuditta” (1930) is seldom done. The composer let himself be persuaded to stage this work at the Vienna State Opera, of course with legendary tenor Richard Tauber as the lover; and the work is basically an operetta with some pretentions at being an opera, but with several elements that would eventually turn into the musical comedy.

I am glad to have finally seen “Giuditta” on a Video Land DVD as it was performed in 2003 at the Seefestspiele Morbisch, in which the audience sits in a huge arena while the action takes place on a small fabricated isle. This necessitates those ugly telephone-operator face mikes for the singers and the consequent distortion of sound when the music becomes forte.

It is all very spectacular visually, however, and the nightclub act that opens Act IV is a hoot, inserting songs from other Lehar works. No, when it comes to operetta, I think we will never see or hear what the composer and his librettists originally created. But as long as the music remains fairly intact, I can’t complain too much. (Except when they do “improvements” to Gilbert and Sullivan, and then I explode.)

Giuditta (Natalia Ushakova) is bored to death with her elderly husband in Andalusia and runs off with a soldier, Octavio (Mehrzad Montazeri) when his regiment leaves for Morocco. There she becomes a nightclub star, and when Octavio’s regiment is sent away, she does what a girl can do when it must be done. He returns as a pianist (!) and finds her with a new patron of her arts. Their story ends in sorrow.

Unhappily, I find neither of these characters particularly interesting. The sexual situations are unusual and the music a bit heavy for your typical operetta. But all in all, I found the major plot uninteresting and contrived.

As always, there is the secondary comic couple, in this case Pierrino (Markus Heinrich) and Anita (Julia Bauer), who also fled from Spain and made it good at the very same club. They too are not very interesting, and funny only in the way such stereotyped characters were expected to be in works like this. One can easily see why the operetta was a dying art form by 1930.

The running time is 116 minutes (the box says 126), the subtitles are only in English, and the tracking list is useless.