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.

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.

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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.

Kalman’s Operetta, “Die Csardasfurstin,” Brims Over with Lively Melodies

A-OP-CsardasfurstinKalman Operetta, “Die Csardasfurstin,” Brims Over with Lively Melodies

  A csardas or czardas is an Hungarian dance noted for its changes in tempo. “Die Csardasfurstin” is a 1907 operetta by Emmerich Kalman (1882-1953), a Hungarian composer, many of whose works were contemporaneous with those of Franz Lehar, a Hungarian composer working in the Viennese style (that is, waltzes).

Even at the time of “Die Fledermaus” (1874), Hungarian music was all the rage in Europe. So while other composers did what they could to get Hungarian music into obligatory party scenes, Kalman’s scores gave audiences the real thing. Since Act I of “Die Csardasfurstin” takes place in Budapest, the songs and dances are brimming over with Hungarian folk melodies.

Back in 1969, an abridged version was made for television with Anna Moffo in the title role (“The Gypsy Princess” is the common translation for this work, but it is inaccurate and misleading) and it is available on a Deutsche Grammphon DVD. But now there is a complete “live” performance on the Video Land label as given in 2002 at the Seefestspiele Morbisch. The open air stage is vast, the cast of singers and dancers fills it nicely, and the whole production is given a glitzy Broadway style that somehow does not seem top-heavy.

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Emmerich Kalman

The plot involves a nobleman, Edwin (Ferdinand von Bothmer), who is engaged by his parents to the Countess Stasi (Kerstin Grotrian) but is in love with the singer Sylva (Vera Schoenenberg) whose specialty is singing czardas numbers. Although ready to leave on a tour to America, she is willing to stay for Edwin…but of course things go awry. The denouement, although not very original, still comes as a surprise.

Schoenenberg is tall and attractive enough to make a convincing Sylva, while von Bothmer is not quite as attractive as one would wish for the dashing male lead. Contributing to the fun is Edwin’s friend Count Boni (Markus Werba), who with Countess Stasi shares the role of the secondary loving couple. Alas, those horrible body mikes are even more offensive in close-ups.

I am most impressed with the opening, in which the dead bodies of civilians are lying amidst the rubble of some restaurant. Then two clocks turn back a quarter-hour, the bodies revive, and all is jolly in pre-World War I Budapest. Act II takes place 10 minutes before the fatal hour, Act III 5 minutes before. Thankfully, the show ends on a happy note; but the Seefestspiele fireworks after curtain calls might be interpreted in a less jolly manner.

The running time is 132 minutes and subtitles are in three languages but not in German.

Sullivan Without Gilbert Still Has His Charm in “The Beauty Stone”

 

A-OP-Berauty StoneSullivan Without Gilbert Still Has His Charm in “The Beauty Stone”

It is ironic that Sullivan–who made it quite clear to Gilbert and their producer D’Oyly Carte that he would not tolerate another plot that depended on a magic elixir, potion or lozenge–would choose “The Beauty Stone” as his next-to-last complete work for the stage.

The libretto is about the Devil offering a Beauty Stone to whoever would apply it to their person to bring back their youthful good looks or to change from plainness into perfect beauty. This might have worked had Gilbert written the lyrics and dialogue. But the authors were Arthur Wing Pinero and Joseph William Comyns Carr, neither of whom ever before wrote for the musical stage.

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Arthur Wing Pinero

To complicate matters even more, each man saw the work in a different light–opera, operetta, music drama—each of which called for a different musical approach. And worse yet, neither author was willing to make any of the changes that Sullivan suggested. However, given the stilted medieval-like lines and the almost complete lack of humor, there was little Sullivan could have done to save the day. As it turned out, the production closed after only 50 performances and has seldom been revived.

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Arthur Sullivan

But now we can hear the work in more or less complete form on a Chandos set of two CDs, with Roy MacDonald conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The excellent program notes give a full history of the work and a deep analysis of Sullivan’s score, which the writer deems one of his best. Still, one familiar with his works with Gilbert had best put them out of mind and judge “The Beauty Stone” on its own merits.

The only line that made me laugh is when a contest entrant declares how beautiful her small foot is and the chorus asks that who cares “That she wears a smaller shoe/ Than some other maidens do?” and comments about another that it was a long time ago that she fell in love with herself. The lyrics should have a lot more of that sort of thing.

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Alan Opie

The cast includes the not very Mephistophelean Devil (Alan Opie), the handicapped Laine (Elin Manshan Thomas), who outshines all her rivals at the beauty contest because of the stone,  Laine’s father Simon the weaver (Stephen Gadd), her mother (Catherine Wyn-Rogers), and the nobleman Guntran (David Stout).

G&S lovers and students of the musical theatre will find this set a must. Play it first following the libretto, and from then on for the music alone.

Babes in Toyland

Two More Vintage Musicals Appear on DVDs

A-VAI-Babes in Toyland

Here is yet another  addition, actually two of them, to the Video Artists International series of vintage televised musicals from the 1950s both of which are most unusual.

   Designed for Christmas viewing, Victor Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland” was telecast on December 18, 1954 and again on December 24, 1955 with only two cast changes. Since both were available as black and white kinescopes, the good folk at VAI chose to include both on a single disc.

What makes this production even more valuable is that it is the only one seen on small or big screens to keep to the original plot. Will the beautiful Bo-Peep find her sheep? Will the horrible Silas Barnaby get his wicked way? Allow me to ignore the plot, as I am sure all but children will do, and reassure my readers that the music is the essence. How can one dislike a duet based on a math homework problem?

There are five writers listed who have “adapted” the show to fit into a 90-minute (less for commercials) slot. So allowances must be made by those who know the original version.

Those who lived through the 1950s will recognize in the casts, many a personality: Dave Garroway (Santa Claus in a framing device), Dennis Day (Tommy Tucker), Wally Cox (Grumio), Jack E. Leonard (Barnaby), and even Bill & Cora Baird and their Marionettes. The soprano lead of Jane Piper is Jo Sullivan in 1954 and Barbara Cook in 1955. That provides a nostalgia trip on top of it all.

The highlight of “Babes in Toyland” is obviously the “March of the Toys” in which the show’s most famous music is heard and in which the choreographer can be as imaginative as possible. Given the small area of the television studio, Rod Alexander did a very nice job, using both marionettes and live dancers. In fact, the telecasts produced by Max Liebman make good use of the Rod Alexander and Bambi Linn team.

While the Clown routines might prove a bit tiresome for adults, the tiny tots will eat them up. Entertainers, however, will appreciate the changes in the Clown sequence in 1954 and 1955.

I have always thought that the opening and closing number, “Toyland,” has a slight apologetic ring to it. Asking an adult audience to watch Mother Goose characters does perhaps call for an excuse. (The 1903 original was designed as a Christmas review.) But somehow the song works and therefore so does the show.