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.

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.

 

Only Girl

A 1914 Victor Herbert Show Given in Revised Format

A-Only GirlSince Victor Herbert wrote stage musicals from 1895 to 1924, it is no wonder that his music (and plots) evolved from the European operetta type (“Naughty Marietta” and “The Princess Pat”) to shows like “The Only Girl” (1914) that sound like early Jerome Kern with their ragtime numbers and contemporary plots.

With available CD recordings of several Herbert works (with dialogue) from the Ohio Light Opera, it is a pleasant pastime to trace this development. Now Light Opera of New York is joining in with recordings on the Albany label like “Orange Blossoms” (1921) and now “The Only Girl.”

I must emphasize that this “Only Girl” is a “revised edition.” The original, as the very helpful program notes tell us, had more dialogue than music and seemed “more like a play with some good music.” So Stage Director Michael Phillips scuttled most of the dialogue that was filled with references to current events, revised what was left and kept but rearranged the songs.

The weak plot involves a temperamental lyricist nicknamed Kim (Kyle Erdos-Knapp), who finds his perfect composer in Ruth Wilson (Antoni Mendezona). He cannot bear the thought of a female partner and … Well, one can guess and who can really have any deep feelings for such clichéd characters?

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Victor Herbert

The songs are mostly light hearted and typical of their times. There is a scene in which the men compete in a song contest with the women and sing an anti-marriage song, “Bachelors don’t learn a bit of sense.” The women reply with “Ages ago, as you well know” and are given the prize. And the plot does not advance by one millimeter.

And since this is a show about putting on a show, a few songs from the show within the show are merely sung as part of a rehearsal. But the idea of a song furthering the story was not an important one back then.

Mendezona’s voice is operatic, which is appropriate for a work with songs that would be at home in Herbert’s earlier works, while Erdos-Knapp’s sounds more like those heard in current musicals—youthful but not powerful. The secondary roles include singers with strong voices, such as Sarah Best as Jane, and comic nasal voices from the other females.

The score is very pleasant without having any really memorable numbers, but it is conducted with a passion by Gerald Steichen. Well worth the hearing, especially for local theatre groups looking for something out of the ordinary to perform.

“Zigeunerbaron” is Something of a Letdown

A-OP-Zigneurnerbaron

“Zigeunerbaron” is Something of a Letdown

   When Johann Strauss II’s “Der Zigeunerbaron” (The Gypsy Baron) opened in 1885, Western Europe had spent a 50-year love affair with Hungarian music. So this operetta about Gypsies, with a score infused with Gypsy music was a sure hit. But for me, today, after a promising overture, the show does not work as well as other Strauss musicals.

In yet another grand production given at the Seefestspiele Morbisch in 2011, now on a Videoland DVD, the silly plot is not enough to maintain interest, the comic songs are not funny, and the moments of great beauty are few and far between. In fact, the only excitement comes during the choreographed sequences, so that the highlight of the production is the fully danced curtain calls!

The cast does its best to keep things moving, but again the story and somewhat unexceptional score are against them. I will not go into further detail. I believe this production is worth seeing because anything by Strauss, Jr. always has its merits. And it is always fun watching this group fill its huge stage, even though those telephone operator mikes on their faces look ludicrous in closeup.

The running time is 143 minutes and there are subtitles in four languages. The tracking list in the booklet is inaccurate.

 

81Kx0GmYwTL._SY679_Note: There is a made for television and abridged version with a less than scintillating tenor in the title role, Siegfried Jerusalem. There is less dancing and the plot remains uninteresting.

An Exciting “Pirates of Penzance” is Performed in Australia

 

A-OP-Priates of Penzance (Australia)
No, that is not Depp on the cover!

An Exciting “Pirates of Penzance” is Performed in Australia 

   After watching the mutilated “Gondoliers” as performed by Opera Australia, in which neither Gilbert’s lyrics nor dialogue was spared updating by those concerned, I was most reluctant to watch their 2007 “The Pirates of Penzance” on the Kultur label. So I played it safe and ordered it through Netflix…and I loved every moment of it! Now I have my own copy and will use it to play for friends and in my lectures.

For starters, it does not change any of the lyrics or dialogue, except for a few harmless ad libs. Although it is heavily influenced by the Joseph Papp rock version, the orchestration here is Sullivan’s. Costuming the Pirate King (Anthony Warlow) to closely resemble Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a joke that wears out quickly butalso  does no harm. But he does adopt a body language that is often curiously effeminate, perhaps not intentionally.

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The Pirate King (Richard Temple) in the original production’s costume

John Bolton Wood’s Major-General Stanley first appears in kilts and gives his patter entrance song at a fast clip. Only at the very end of the opera does he appear in his proper uniform. David Hobson’s Frederic looks a little older than a 21 year old (or 5.25, if we go by birthdays!), but sings well and has a good sense of humor. His Mabel (Taryn Fiebig) gets a good deal of comedy into her “Poor wand’ring one” without making it silly.

I was delighted to see that the Police are costumed in accurate uniforms without any clownish additions and no rubber-leg dancing. Also Richard Alexander’s basso is just right for the Police Sergeant. Suzanne Johnston makes a sympathetic Ruth in Act I, looking really older than 47. But in Act II, in a pirate costume and lipstick, she looks sexy and 100% piratical.

The scenery is minimal, with such items as the pirate vessel, trees, and tombstones being wheeled on by the cast. It all works beautifully, at one point to the accompaniment of an orchestral vamp.

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Warlow underneath the Depp makeup

A short introduction  is given instead of the overture. But the full finale, which Gilbert wrote for the New York opening, using a reprise of the Major-General song followed by “Poor wand’ring one,” makes a great ending. So kudos to stage director Stuart Maunder and conductor Andrew Greene for the best “Pirates” on video yet.

The running time is 112 minutes, the picture is widescreen format, but alas no subtitles.

 

Victor Herbert’s “Orange Blossoms” Has a Broadway Sound

A-Orange BlosssomsVictor Herbert’s “Orange Blossoms” Has a Broadway Sound

Up to now, the Ohio Light Opera Company has had a near monopoly on CD recordings of old time musicals. But now Light Opera of Manhattan has weighed in on the Albany label with Victor Herbert’s 1922 “Orange Blossoms.”

Herbert is forever connected with operettas, mostly “Naughty Marietta” and “New Moon”—and that mostly because of the Macdonald-Eddy film versions. But he knew how to keep up with the times, and “Orange Blossoms” is as much of the Broadway genre as other shows that appeared in the early 20s such as “Lady, Be Good,” “No, No, Nanette,” and “Dearest Enemy.” Yet it is also as much of the operetta genre as works like “The Student Prince” and “The Vagabond King.”  It is this “keeping up while looking back” aspect of the score that makes this recording so interesting.

The plot revolves around Roger (Glenn Seven Allen) who wants to marry Helen (Sarah Callinan) who is a Brazilian divorcee. But he will lose an inheritance if he does; and so he will marry Kitty (Natalie Ballinger), who will then divorce him and leave him free to marry Helen. Get it?  Others in on the plot are Tillie (Lisa Flanagan) and Jimmy (Ben Liebert).

But it is the songs that count. “A kiss in the dark” is the only number from this score that is familiar; and alas Ms. Ballinger does not have the voice that will erase memories of other artists who have recorded this gem, such as Beverley Sills. However, she and the rest of the cast are certainly up to the less demanding songs that Herbert has provided.

There is an interesting duet for Tillie and Jimmy in which they plan to live “way out west in Jersey,” thereby anticipating Larry Hart’s “Way out west on West End Avenue” by fifteen years. Critics back then noted that the music in the last act is not as good as what went before. But this happens in “Student Prince” and “Die Fledermaus.” To be honest, while most of “Orange Blossoms” is entertaining, little of it is very memorable.

Conductor Evans Haile makes a good case for the score, however, and I am especially happy with the natural way in which the dialogue is delivered. None of this “isn’t this funny?” intonation that is so prevalent in productions of older operettas. I am not happy, however, with a “revised edition” by director Michael Phillips. If you are going to revive a gem, revive it as written. It is a director’s challenge to make even weak dialogue sound good.

Victor Herbert’s “The Fortune Teller” Comes to Life on CD

 

A-OLO-Fortune TellerVictor Herbert’s “The Fortune Teller Comes to Life on CD

It is interesting to note that Victor Herbert’s “The Fortune Teller” opened in 1898, only two years after Gilbert & Sullivan’s last collaboration, “The Grand Duke.” In the latter work, one man finds himself engaged to four women; in the former one woman finds herself engaged to three men. Even Herbert’s music in “Fortune Teller” sounds similar to parts of “Grand Duke.” But in the world of musical theatre, such things are bound to happen.

The Ohio Light Opera has a long series of operatic recordings, to which “The Fortune Teller” is the latest entry. It is  available in a 2-CD set from Albany Records. The book and lyrics by Henry B. Smith tell the story of a Gypsy named Musette who is a dead ringer for the prima ballerina of the Budapest Opera, Irma (both roles sung here by Amy Maples).

The penniless Count Berezowski (Logan Walsh) wants to marry Irma because of her bracelet (just accept that for now), but Musette poses as Irma and winds up engaged to him while Irma disguises herself as her twin brother Fedor, lest he be charged with desertion. (I am not making this up!) At any rate, the dialogue is included in both the recording and booklet and can be cheerfully ignored.

More than one Herbert tune does not quite make it, such as the military choruses, which suffer by comparison with Sullivan’s march in “Patience.” But two melodies have often been sung out of context on collections of Herbert’s songs: “Romany life,” which celebrates the Gypsy world outlook, and the hauntingly beautiful “Gypsy love song,” which is sung to entice Musette into staying with her people.

In fact, I have grown so used to hearing sopranos and mezzos sing the latter that I was surprised to find it is a man, Sandor (David Kelleher-Flight), who is assigned this gem.

Although one or two of the men read their lines in that “this is an operetta” lilt, the silly plot can stand that treatment, while the other musical pieces range from pretty good to exquisite.

And I am assured by John Ostendorf, the Recording Producer, that the dialogue is found in the original script though it is highly abridged.

Finally, Conductor Steven Byess leads singers and orchestra with brio. Good work all around.

Friml’s “Firefly” Flits Finally in Complete Recording

Friml’s “Firefly” Flits Finally in Complete Recording A-OLO-Firefly

 “Love is like a firefly” is a line from Rudolf Friml’s 1912 Broadway operetta “The Firefly.” The score should have been by Victor Herbert, but he wanted nothing to do with any work that would star the recalcitrant lead in his “Naughty Marietta.” Therefore, Friml was engaged, and Otto Harbach (spelled Hauerbach back then) provided lyrics and dialogue.

2006-firefly
Scenes from OLO production (2006)

As part of its forever growing series of full-scale operettas, The Ohio Light Opera some time ago added “The Firefly” to its collection of recordings on the Albany label. Running just a few minutes over 2 hours, this performance convinces the hearer yet again how insipid the old plots were (I will decline to give any synopsis here) and how generalized and banal the lyrics. Was NOTHING learned from Gilbert and Sullivan?

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Friml in 1932

As is the case with almost all modern productions of the old-time operettas, the dialogue—and often the plot—is changed in many performances and recordings. However, I am assured, however, by a gentleman connected with the OLO recordings that their CD productions stick close to the original dialogue, except for cuts when time demands necessitate them.

Now and then, the music is well worth the purchase price. Nina, sung here more than adequately by Robin DeLeon, gets a few show stoppers, the most famous of which is “Giannina mia” in the first act. One must be grateful to Albany for supplying all the text, without which most of the choruses and Harbach’s lyrics would be impossible to understand.

The rest of the cast is quite good for this kind of music; but what there is of the Ohio Light Opera production’s dialogue should have been speeded up quite a bit. I doubt if any listener would want to hear it on repeated hearings at any rate.

51aOcQehyBL._SX362_BO1,204,203,200_One word. “The Donkey Serenade” is nowhere to be heard. It was written for the film version, which replaces the goofy romantic doings of the New York upper crust in the city and in Bermuda with the goofy political and romantic doings in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars! The Serenade was based without Friml’s permission or knowledge on his piano piece “Chanson,” latter revised as “Chansonette.”

I think this recording is important enough to belong to any collection of Broadway shows. And the dialogue can be programmed out.

Ohio Light Opera Dishes Up a Happy “Gondoliers”

 

IMG_20150531_0001Ohio Light Opera Dishes Up a Happy “Gondoliers”

  I believe that the score to Arthur Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” is his happiest, while the plot is a topsy-turvy affair in the true William S. Gilbert manner.. In the past, The Ohio Light Opera has been performing and recording on CDs full productions of rarely done operettas. The Gilbert & Sullivan works so far in their series of recordings have fairly complete dialogue and therefore are in competition with the D’Oyly Carte recordings of those works that contain only the musical segments..

However, the latest release on the Troy label, “The Gondoliers,” has competition from a D’Oyly Carte recording with dialogue on the Decca label; and I was afraid that this OLO version would suffer in comparison. In two words, it doesn’t!

This is a nearly perfect recording of the musical tale of two gondoliers, Marco (Jack Beetle) and Giuseppe (Nicholas Hartley), who having just married Gianetta (Kemper LeCroy-Flarin) and Tessa (Sahara Glasener-Boles) then learn from the Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra del Bolero (Gary Moss) that one of them is really the King of Barataria and (later in Act II) that the same one is also married to Casilda (Anne Marie Frohnmayer), the daughter of the out-of-pocket Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Ted Christopher and a light-voiced Sandra Ross). Trouble is, no one but the king’s mother knows which is the king and which the gondolier. And she is on her way to sort things out.

And so the two rule jointly as a monarchy based on republican (small “r”) principles. The only satire is against the belief that ALL people can be equal in rank, and that line of thought comes to an end half way into Act II. The plot’s ending is a nod to one of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, and no more need be said.

The dialogue is spoken with a good tempo and the enunciation is very good with final “t’s” and “d’s carefully hit off. (I cannot understand why “livery” is pronounced with a long “i,” but let that go.) The dialogue is absolutely complete and the music is conducted with verve by J. Lynn Thompson.

The booklet has minimal notes abut the background of the play and the entire text of the dialogue and songs. I would call this one a Grabbit.

Seldom Done, “Princess Ida” Gets a Fine Production in Seattle

A-OLO-Princess IdaSeldom Done, “Princess Ida” Gets a Fine Production in Seattle

I have been writing much about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Here, I want to commend their 2007 production of the seldom-performed “Princess Ida.” With a weak libretto, dialogue in blank verse, and an uncomfortable anti-feminist approach, this work still has one of the most delightful scores in the G&S series.

Taking aim at women who, in Gilbert’s time, wanted equal rights to an advanced education, the plot concerns Prince Hilarion (Scott Rittenhouse) and his two friends Cyril (John Brookes) and Florian (Michael Giles) who break into Castle Adamant so that the Prince can claim his bride Princess Ida (Amanda Brown), while her father King Gama (Dave Ross) is held hostage by King Hildebrand (William J. Darkow), father to Hilarion. (Get it?)

Among the students of Adamant, all of whom are sworn to avoid males of any kind (including chessmen and roosters), are the philosophical Lady Blanche (Alyce Rogers), her daughter Melissa (Elizabeth Ford), and Florian’s sister Psyche (Cara Iverson). And let me not forget Ida’s three hulking brothers, who always appear in armor until they have to fight, at which time they strip it all off.

The songs are a joy. Gama has two patter songs, the first of which is really Gilbert’s opinion of himself; Psyche has the delightful tale of the ape who loved a lovely maiden; Ida has two operatic arias of great beauty; the three young men have two funny trios in a row; the three brothers have a wonderful parody of Handelian oratorio; and all of the ensembles are either amusing or beautiful. Lady Blanche’s only solo is among the worst Sullivan ever composed (look at the lyrics!), but I am glad it is kept for the sake of completeness.

The scenery is colorful and does a good 180-degree rotation in Act II. The costumes are as Gilbert wanted them: medieval, despite the presence of telescopes and cigars. There is some silly ad-libbing as the men change into women’s gowns, but that is the only addition to the text; and the three brothers do bump into each other a little too often. But in general, director Christine Goff shows respect for her author and composer, and conductor Bernard Kwiram gives her able support from the pit.

Copies can be ordered through the website at www.pattersong.org.