Yeomen of the Guard

A-VAI-YeomenAn Early Telecast of “Yeomen of the Guard” is Preserved on DVD

One of the better releases in the VAI DVD series of vintage television productions of musicals is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard.” It is the team’s work that is closest to opera, it does not involve topsy-turvy situations, and the characters are fairly believable.

Part of the Max Liebman Presents series, this 1957 “Yeomen” was allowed 80 minutes of running time, the rest dedicated to commercials and station breaks, and therefore is by no means complete.  (The missing commercials can be seen as an extra.) But it does keep quite a bit of the dialogue and score (a full performance would run a bit over two hours) and serves as a good introduction to the complete work.

A caveat at this point. The original telecast was in color; only a black and white copy was found. Also, the picture is a bit more wobbly than are other VAI discs in this series. But there is no other (as far as I can tell) decent video of “Yeomen” available to us, so this one is a valuable addition to the history of television and to G&S productions. (The one from BBC is simply bad.)

A synopsis of the plot would take up too much space here; but I want to comment that the so-called Happy Ending is quite different from those in the other G&S plays: two characters wind up engaged to the very people they hate and the main comic character (like Bunthorne in “Patience”) gets what he deserves.

Alfred Drake makes a very good if not overly subtle Jack Point the jester, while popular singer Bill Hayes looks and sounds good as the not very admirable Colonel Fairfax. Barbara Cook has an operatic voice that suits her role as Elsie, but Celeste Holm in her opening song sounds too Broadway-ish for the young Phoebe; but she can hold her own with Cook from that point on.

The show begins with some background information about the Tower of London, which might interest the audience. But a second introduction by Jack Point is utterly superfluous and the time could have been better spent with a stanza from at least one song that had been removed.

Other operettas in this VAI series are Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” and “The Dessert Song.” “The Chocolate Solider” stars Rise Stevens (a big plus) but does not follow the original in Acts II and III (a bad minus).

Count of Luxemburg

A-OP-Graf von LuxemburgLehar Operetta Shows the Start of the Modern Musical

Lehar’s 1909 operetta “Der Graf von Luxemburg” (The Count of Luxemburg) has a plot that even Gilbert might turn down, even though he used similar plot devices in at least two of his works. But when watching an operetta, such plots must be accepted as part of the fun.

There is an ArtHaus DVD of a 1972 made-for-television film of “The Count” that runs 95 minutes. There is also one on the CPO label that has poor reviews. But now there is a full 146-minute production from 2002 on the Videoland label and this is the “Count” to see. It is given on the mammoth stage of the Seefestspiel Morbisch, with its lovely lake behind the island-like stage.

As for that plot. It is Carnival time in Paris. To avoid marrying beneath his station, an elderly Russian prince (Harald Serafin)—although already engaged to a real countess–hires Rene, the penniless Count of Luxemburg, to enter into a kissless marriage with the diva Angele (Gesa Hoppe) for a period of time. Then
she too will be a countess, they can divorce, and the prince can marry her. The gimmick: the two are wed on opposite sides of a screen and never see each other. They part and later meet, only to… Well, the reader can take it from there.

The traditional secondary couple is the artist Armand (Marko Kathol) and his long-standing fiancée Juliette (Anna-Nina Bahrmann). Then there is the “other woman,” the aforementioned Countess (Marika Lichter), who forces the denouement to end the play.

A scene from long ago: marriage behind a screen

Not having any “big” number that lingers in the memory as do at least three melodies from Lehar’s 1907 “Merry Widow,” the sentimental serious tunes are firmly in the operetta tradition while the comic ones look forward to the early Broadway musicals. I cannot tell how far the dialogue on this recording varies from the original; but I see that a 1937 revision of Act I is used.

The production is a handsome one, if just a little overblown, given the vast stage. Those (to me) absurd body mikes that make the singers look like telephone switchboard operators are only too apparent in close-ups; and I cannot help but think how the audience is paying to hear electronically projected voices. I find the voices of the two leading lovers adequate to the demands of their roles

The English subtitles are in rhyme rather than a literal translation of the German lyrics. The booklet gives only a short resume of the plot, while the tracking list does not reflect the numbering on the DVD.

All in all, I find this recording a highly enjoyable look back to when musicals had melodies and happy endings were what audiences wanted and got.



Land of Smiles

There Are Many Tears in “The Land of Smiles”


A-OP-Land of SmilesFranz Lehar’s “Das Land des Lachelns” (The Land of Smiles) is probably his best known operetta after “The Merry Widow.” It tells the tale of a Viennese woman who falls in love with a Chinese Prince, follows him to China, and finds she cannot live as his “possession,” according to Chinese customs. There is, indeed, very little smiling in this Land of Smiles.

There is a German television version of 1974 that runs 100 minutes. It is cut and rewritten, and stars an extremely wooden Rene Kollo as Prince Sou-Chong. But now there is a 134-minute version on an ORF DVD that preserves a “live” production given in 2001 at the Seefestspiele Morbisch (Austria).

The outdoor setting boasts a wide playing area with a lovely vista of water behind it. There are two dance groups. One seems to be an Austrian group that waltzes during the overture and in Act I; the other is The Hunan Provincial Song and Dance Troupe that adds lots of color during processional sequences and sets the mood during other dramatic moments. It is all very eye-filling.

While not a great actor but still blocks ahead of Kollo, Sangho Choi at least shows some emotion (gladness to anger to regret) and has a ringing tenor voice that has made some compare him to Richard Tauber, the immensely popular tenor who created the role and starred in many Lehar works. Lisa, his maltreated beloved, is sung and acted nicely by Ingrid Habermann.

Television version with a very dull Kollo

The secondary lovers (think of Will and Ado Annie in “Oklahoma”) are Lisa’s cousin Gustl (Dietmar Kerschbaum) and the Prince’s sister Mi (Yuko Mitani). It is Mi who gets the comic song about Chinese women who must cover up most of their body and gets to show up in a tennis outfit. Gustl is given a scene with the palace eunuch in which tasteless eunuch jokes are bandied—and I wonder if any of this comes from the original script. Operettas are subjected to all sorts of changes when revived.

But with the use of my invaluable 1353-page copy of “Ganzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre,” I find that all of the songs are included and in the correct order. The music throughout is most enjoyable. Yes, I can recommend this video highly.

The track listing is very sparse: Act I, Act II up to the big aria (“Dein is mein ganzes Herz”), the rest of the act, and Act III. The subtitles are in three languages, but not in German!


The Desert Song

The Desert Song” as It Was Televised in 1955A-VAI-Desert Song

Sigmund Romberg’s “The Desert Song” (1926) ran for 471 performances and was adapted on film in 1929, 1943 (the Nazis are the villains here), and in color in 1953. In 1955, it was shown on television as part of the Max Liebman Presents series; and that abridged version is now part of the invaluable series of DVDs of vintage television shows from VAI.

            This 75-minute black-and-white version drops two comic characters and their songs, but keeps what is left intact (although I cannot vouch for the dialogue). Those familiar with “The Mark of Zorro,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and even Superman will spot the creaky plot in which a hero poses as a coward. Here Pierre (Nelson Eddy), the son of a French General (Otto Kruger), falls for the beautiful Margot (Gale Sherwood). Disguised as the bane of the French, the Red Shadow, Pierre kidnaps her; and what there is of a creaky plot develops along very predictable lines.

Romberg in 1949

But the essence of “The Desert Song” consists of “One alone,” “Romance,” the title song, and some lesser but pleasing numbers. There is a good deal of dance, a bit too much, considering how much plot had to be cut; but Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander justify the time devoted to the ballet.

It is a pity that the secondary pair of lovers had to be dropped, because the main plot is not all that engrossing. But face it: it is the music that counts in operettas and of that there is plenty.

download (8)
The 1953 film version

Eddy is not complimented by close-ups, but his baritone is still pleasant. Sherwood is described as his post-MacDonald partner. I find her easier to take than her predecessor. It is good to see the old opera buffa basso Salvatore Baccaloni as a Moroccan bigwig, but it is not easy to understand what he is saying.

The picture is a kinescope (a camera filming a television screen) and the sound is obviously not up to today’s standards. But it is such fun and a must for lovers of the old romantic times when Romberg gave the people what they wanted.

NOTE  Some of the other televised musicals in this series are “Naughty Marietta,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Dearest Enemy,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “The Yeomen of the Guard,” and the Groucho Marx “The Mikado.”

Merry Widow

A-OP-Merry Widow

An Outdoor “Merry Widow” is Overproduced

There is no lack of DVD recordings of Lehar’s “Die lustige Witwe” (The Merry Widow), and the most spectacular comes from the Seefestspiele Morbisch (Austria). Just released on a Videoland disc, it contains a 2007 performance that runs 150 minutes. As with “The Land of Smiles,” “The Count of Luxemburg,” and “Die Csardasfurstin” Morbisch productions that I have seen, the open air stage is far too large for the intimacy that so many scenes in operetta demand. And so this “Merry Widow” becomes a Barnum and Bailey spectacular and gone is any subtlety from the work itself.

The Widow herself, Hanna (consistently named Anna in the subtitles), is played for laughs by Margarita De Areliano. Her mugging distracts from the dignity the role demands. She is a beautiful woman who knows that the millions she inherited from her husband is what draws all the males in Paris to her and is out to enjoy it while she can.

220px-Lehar_Lustige-Witwe_KlA-01Yes, we can see that “Viennese” operetta had grown up quite a bit by 1905, when “Merry Widow” first was seen. The handsome romantic lead here is Danilo, but he is a useless servant of the state, who can sleep only at his desk and devotes the rest of his time to the girls at Maxim’s. Unhappily, Mathias Hausmann lacks charm of any sort; and even in his intimate duets with Hanna, neither shows any spark. There is more rapport between the secondary lovers, Valencienne (Elizabeth Starzinger) and Camille (Marwan Shamiyeh); but (remember, this is 1905) their love is adulterous.

So in a way, “The Merry Widow” is a sort of “Pal Joey” in how it breaks the rules of what a light musical was “supposed” to be about!

The tracking list in incorrect and tracking on the disc itself is maddeningly inconsistent. The subtitles of the songs rhyme and are mere approximations of the German text.

The entire performance is over produced, with the chorus constantly on the move and at least one of the dance sequences obviously stretched out beyond what Lehar asks for. I was most interested when I found an article on the website telling about the removal of artistic director Harald Serafin (who appears as Baron Zeta in this production) because of lessening ticket sales and his replacement by Dagmar Schellenberger.

downloadA superior “Merry Widow” is on the ArtHaus Musik label with a performance from the Zurich Opera House, starring (surprise!) Dagmar Schellenberger. This is the one I can recommend. But for those who like Kitsch, the Videoland version will please.