By 1905, it was starting to be difficult to tell Victor Herbert’s operettas from the musical comedies of that time. Sigmund Romberg’s “Student Prince” (1924) for example, sounds very European, while Herbert’s “Mlle. Modiste” (1905) sounds like early Jerome Kern. The tunes are snappy, the lyrics bordering on intelligent now and then, the plot (alas) just as cliché-ridden as most of the others.
Still, it is so good to hear the score with most of the original dialogue, albeit only on CD, well performed by a company that is turning more and more to early musicals. Yes, it is the Ohio Light Opera that is featured on this 2-CD set issued some time ago on the Albany label. Aside from an occasional line reading that implies “isn’t this a funny show?” the singing is up to OLO standards, the acting is more than adequate, given the lines the cast has to speak, and the whole thing is a lot of fun.
The two “big tunes” are “Kiss me again” (that comes as the last part of what is known as an “audition” song) from Act I and “I want what I want (when I want it)” from Act II. The funniest lyrics of all—and every English teacher should copy them and hand them out to the class—are those in “Ze English language.” (The rest of the show is done without the annoying “French” accents.)
The plot is concerned with Fifi (Sara Ann Mitchell), a salesgirl in a Paris hat shop, who wants to be a singing star. She is courted by Capt. Etienne (Todd Strange), whose family considers her too low for him, and by the pathetic Gaston (Jacob Allen). It is easy to guess which one she loves and which one gets her at the end.
Conductor Michael Borowitz instills good humor into the playing of his Ohio Light Opera Festival musicians and vocalists.
To those who miss memorable melodies in what once were musical comedies and to those who are interested in the development of the American musical stage play, “Mlle. Modiste” is not to be passed over.
Herbert tried his hand at operatic works such as “Natoma,” a tale of an Indian maiden. But the public preferred the bouncy tunes of “The Red Mill” and there we are.
By the way, my comparison with early Kern can be backed by hearing “Mlle Modiste” and Kern’s “The Cabaret Girl,” also available in the OLO series of recordings.