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.
“Comic” Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At
Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of “The Merry Widow” from San Francisco some years ago. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se–and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say “Good for you” and laugh at their expense.
The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most “Merry Widow”-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.
For example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, “Towed in a Hole,” they are trying to improve their “fresh fish” business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right–failings that come from their basic characters–is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.
But the husbands in “The Merry Widow” have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film “Microcosmos,” there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience’s sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.
In too many versions of “The Mikado,” Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, “Take him away,” in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!
Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in “HMS Pinafore” played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like “the ruler of the Queen’s nahvee” despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.
The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in “The Barber of Seville.” If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of “Barber” are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.
Even the richly comic Papageno in “The Magic Flute” might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types (“humors” as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.
This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage–even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.
Lehar 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.
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.
Franz 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.
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!