Anagnorisis in Operetta

WHO ARE YOU, SIR? — ANAGNORISIS IN OPERETTA

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Aristotle

Aristotle, who got so much wrong in his physics, was not exactly on the mark in his analysis of Greek tragedies, “The Poetics,” either. But he did emphasize that an especially effective device in a play is the “anagnorisis,” a sudden “recognition” of a character hitherto thought to be someone or something else; and in the case of a person, he or she often turns out to be a blood relation. The most tragic of them all is Oedipus’ realization of who Jocasta is and the happiest is Iphigenia’s realization of who Orestes is as she is preparing his execution in Tauris.

When it comes to opera, anagnorisis is used quite a bit–which should not be surprising since most operettas are based on plays. Here, I will omit plots based on classical Greek plays, since that would be begging the question.

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Strepponi, the first Abigaille

In “grand” opera, the device is used more awkwardly. The evil Abigaille in “Nabucco” learns offstage by means of a conveniently found letter that she is not really of royal birth; while the Gypsy Woman’s revelation that the Count di Luna has just executed his own brother is far too tersely stated and far too quickly accepted as the final chords come crashing from the orchestra.

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One of these two is the King of Barataria…they think

It is in light operas that the device is used to far better effect. The cleverest use is probably at the very end of “Cox and Box” when the two discover they are long lost brothers by virtue of one’s NOT having a strawberry mark on his arm. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore,” the honest sailor Richard Dauntless sells out his relation Robin Oakapple by revealing to one and all that Robin is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the evil Baronet of Ruddigore. At the end of “The Yeomen of the Guard,” Elsie realizes that the man she thought was Leonard Meryll is actually Colonel Fairfax. The denouement of “HMS Pinafore” turns on the past event of Little Buttercup’s having switched the Captain and the lowly tar in infancy (although here it is rank and not relations that is revealed); and we all know that “The Gondoliers” ends with the realization that Luiz the Drummer Boy is really the King of Barataria.

 

In  the first two instances, part of the fun is the audience’s being in on the joke all the while; while in the last two the audience is just as surprised as are the characters on the stage.

513UuSaxQWL._AA160_Note: It is remarkable that the entire cast accepts these last two revelations as true without question. But then  again, Gilbert wanted to wrap things up, and if the plot up until then was accepted, why not the denouement?

The prize for the most elaborate use of the disguise and subsequent recognition has to be awarded to “Die Fledermaus.” Dr. Falke was once the victim of a practical joke played on him by one Eisenstein and he prepares an elaborate revenge. Knowing that a  certain young and ennui-ridden Russian nobleman, Prince Orlofsky is giving a ball, Falke has invitations sent to Frau Eisenstein (Rosalinde),  her maid Adele, and the warden of the local jail, who is to escort Eisenstein to jail that very evening. Then he secretly persuades Eisenstein to go to the ball before going to jail, and of course runs into maid, wife, and jailer.

As soon as they leave, a sex-driven Italian tenor, Alfredo, arrives to woo the wife and is caught by the Warden in Eisenstein’s dressing gown. To save Rosalinde’s reputation, Alfredo allows himself to be arrested in the husband’s place, making him the only major character NOT to go to the ball. At the ball, Eisenstein spends most of the evening trying to seduce his own (masked) wife, even offering her his woman-winning watch, but getting nowhere.

There is an extremely funny sequence in which Husband and Warden, both posing as French nobility, try to carry on a conversation in their “native” language and finally agree that German is good enough for a Viennese party.

Once Eisenstein  tries to check into the jail, he finds “he” is already in a cell. Determined to get to the bottom of things, he assumes a second disguise as a Lawyer and listens to his wife and lover pleading their case. Since nothing short of a deus ex machina could disentangle this plot, the librettists provide one by simply having the entire cast show up in the jail and blame it all on the champagne. In short, Dionysus is triumphant and all ends well.

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sex on a rampage, but no consummation

A similar series of disguises and mistaken identities drive the plot of “La Vie Parisienne,” in which both a Swedish nobleman and his wife separately plan to live it up while in Paris. A young man falls for the wife, poses as a hotel manager and guide, brings them to his own home, which he declares is a hotel, brings the husband to a party at a friend’s home at which all the servants have to play high-class guests…and so on and so on. All ends amicably with a salute to wine. (Well, there are only so many ways to end an operetta like this!)

Whatever would Aristotle have thought about all this?

Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

61Fkw5KeniL._AA160_Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?

51vXsWzszeL._AA160_In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.

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This video has some bad cuts but it does have Vincent Price!

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)

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All but the most patriotic British vampires would fear this

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

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Sorcerer + incantation + teacup = spoof of “Der Freischutz”

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 3

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
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The original three little maids from school

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Leading Ladies

W.S. Gilbert always had an eye for the pretty young ‘uns. Indeed he and wife Kitty legally adopted one of them who was the soprano lead in his “Utopia, Ltd.” after practically ruining his own scenario by adding extra songs for her. He repeated this error to an even greater degree when he did the same for a Hungarian beauty whom he cast in “The Grand Duke.” So like his fellow satirists, Wilde and Twain, he could be so perceptive in his writings and so reckless in real life. A victim, one might say, of his own topsy-turvydom.

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Ruth Vincent as Josephine

We have the usual Victorian spotless maidens in some of the Savoy plays. Aline Sangazure in “The Sorcerer” is willing to stand up to her fiancé for only so long concerning his demand that she partake of the elixir even though she already loves him, but yields in the second act because the plot demands it. Josephine Corcoran in “HMS Pinafore” is simply in love with a simple sailor lowly born, but she shows a little more intelligence than most of her Savoy sisters in realizing what life would be like living with him “in some back street.” Gilbert will never again lead us to such murky waters, except for a song in “Iolanthe” that was dropped very quickly.

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Marion Hood as Mabel

Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” is as good as gold and accepts the ex-(he thinks)-pirate apprentice despite his background; but her sisters ask “had he not been / A thing of beauty, / Would she be swayed by quite as keen / A sense of duty?” On the other hand, she is willing to  wait until 1940 when his 21st birthday finally comes around–and those are points in her favor.

Patience is also a Good Girl, but something of a dipsydoodle when it comes to ideas about love having to be entirely unselfish and she offers herself to a man she cannot abide as a “logical” consequence. And we must give Phyllis credit in “Iolanthe” for rejecting riches and remaining true to her swain–that is, until he insists that the pretty woman he was with, though younger than him, is actually his mother. But who can blame her for that?

Princess Ida, alas, is something of a well-educated moron, to whom it does not occur that posterity without men would be impossible. But at least she is true to her convictions, mistaken or not as they might be. In the next play, “The Mikado,” Yum-Yum can be played as an opportunist who has a chance to marry the heir to the crown; but again we must excuse her for retreating when she finds out that burial alive awaits her after a month. At any rate, she realizes “that I am more attractive than anybody else in the whole world,” and she will always find another.

Tessa and Gianetta share “lead” status in “The Gondoliers”; and like their Japanese predecessor they are not at all averse to becoming Queen of Barataria. They are understandably indignant when they learn that one of them is not really married to her gondolier—[you really have to go over the full plot yourself]—and are quite human about their plans for dealing with the third woman when the time comes. In “Utopia, Ltd.,” Zara already is a princess, but that does not stop her from making a very fatal error in her Anglicizing of her native land. Just what that is will have to wait for another installment in this series.

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Angelina, in her working clothes, does her thing

Now, lest you think that all of Gilbert’s leading ladies are Very Nice Little Women, consider Angelina (what a wonderful name) in “Trial by Jury.” The Breach of Promise suit was the only bit of power (other than the sexual one) that Victorian women were allowed; and if you recall the sequence in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” concerning such a lawsuit, you will realize how absurd it is to place a monetary value on “what love and caressing I’ve lost” by the altered affections of the Defendant. At the end, she certainly gets more riches than she bargained for…but at what a price!

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Geraldine Ulman as sweet Rose Maybud

Just a tad less greedy is sweet Rose Maybud in “Ruddigore,” whose life is ruled by a book of etiquette that is her constant companion and frame of reference. On the other hand, she will easily switch her engagement from young Robin to the British tar Richard because of the latter’s good looks (he is a tenor, you know) and back to Robin because of his “considerable dairy farm” and other assets.

Many have criticized Elsie Maynard in “The Yeomen of the Guard” for her callous treatment of Jack Point. Now this is the play with the “human interest” that  Sullivan insisted on for their next collaboration after “Ruddigore” proved a disappointment. The leading tenor role, Fairfax, is almost on a moral plane with Pinkerton in the Puccini opera, while Elsie’s conduct concerning her engagement to Jack Point the jester might be defensible in light of how the latter has made light of whatever love he might have felt for her for all those years. Unlike the other high-born Savoy sopranos, she really needs the money that is offered her to make a mock marriage…. But read the script for yourself and consider. Sullivan wanted human beings and Gilbert gave them to him: warts and all.

And so much for the briefest of looks at the leading ladies.

“Ruddigore” is Given Complete in Ohio Light Opera Recording

 

IMG_20150528_0001_NEW“Ruddigore” is Given Complete in Ohio Light Opera Recording

When Cole Porter’s “Out of This World” premiered in 1950, the critics could not help (I assume) crying down its value because it did not compare with his 1948 “Kiss Me Kate.” So when Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddygore, or The Witch’s Curse” opened in 1887, boos were heard for the first time in their career, mostly because it could not top “The Mikado” of 1885. Not fair, but that’s what audiences are like. So several revisions were made, mostly cuts, for the rest of the run. And the title was changed orthographically but not phonetically to “Ruddigore.” The subtitle was nearly changed to “Not so Good as The Mikado,” but that silly idea was dropped.

When revived in 1920, even more cuts began to be made, the most important of which were the Act I love duet “The battle’s roar is over,” an Act II patter song for Robin Oakapple, and a very snappy Act II finale sequence that led into the usual reprise of an earlier number. Even the Overture, which contained the excised material, had to be revised—and not for the better.

The three D’Oyly Carte Company recordings keep most of the cuts. None of them have the snappy finale or the patter song, while the 1931 electric recording omits the duet, which is included on the 1924 acoustic and the 1962 stereo versions. The monophonic LP of 1952 has even further cuts. Including the 1962 stereo version with Glyndebourne singers and the very complete 1987 recording with the New Sadler’s Wells forces, there are scarcely two recordings that are consistent in what is included.

However, what they all lack is the dialogue. And now the Ohio Light Opera company’s production is out in a 2-CD set on the Albany label, and any Ruddigore-lover’s fondest wish has come true. Not only are many of the musical cuts restored but the complete dialogue is included.

Although it lacks the period charm of the older 78 rpm recordings, the cast sounds just right for this spoof on the Victorian gothic melodrama of pure village maidens (who know how to follow the money), simple village lads (with horrible secrets), wicked baronets (who crave to be virtuous), simple seamen (who are motivated purely by self-interest), faithful family retainers (who become as wicked as their masters), village mad women (who are almost cured by a sort of mantra), and haunted castles (with picture galleries that come alive at “the night’s high noon”).  And one must mention a female population entirely devoted to being bridesmaids during a depression in the marriage market.

The tunes are as delightful as any found in the other G&S works, while the dialogue spoofs the genre simply by sounding exactly like it with slight exaggerations. And, of course, the Act II patter trio is the patter song to end all patter songs. Some say that the ghost music is almost too good for a spoof; but Sullivan is more of a major composer than some admit and must be given some leeway to “show his stuff.” (The next work, “The Yeoman of the Guard,” gives him an entire work to show his serious side.)

My only slight complaint (too strong a word for this excellent OLO production) is that the pacing of the dialogue could be a little snappier. As with all of their past G&S recordings, they speak it very slowly lest a single bit of humor escape the audience. That said, I can find little fault with any aspect of this recording. I do wish, however, they used the original, not the revised, Overture.

The cast includes Ted Christopher (Robin), Cecily Ellis (Rose), Frederick Reeder (Despard), Anthony Buck (Dick), Dennis Jesse (Roderic), Jessie Wright Martin (Hannah), and Sahara Glasener-Boles (Margaret). Unlike the male vocalists in the New Sadler’s Wells recording, those here have the deep voices needed for their characters, especially the bottomless basso of Cory Clines (Adam).

While conductor Michael Borowitz’ tempos are now and then a little slow, he obviously loves the score and even gives an encore of the last stanza of the patter trio.

The running time is a very enjoyable 130 minutes and the complete text is provided in the program notes.

Ruddigore

“Ruddigore” is Performed with Cuts Restored

A-SGS-Ruddigore               When “Ruddygore” premiered in 1887, it suffered from being a let down from the fabulous “Mikado” that appeared before it and from spoofing a genre of melodrama that had fallen out of favor years before. So Gilbert and Sullivan made several cuts and respelled the title to “Ruddigore.” When revived by the D’Oyly Carte Company in 1920, even more cuts were made and the overture was changed.

The BBC version stars two non-singing male leads and makes even more cuts. But now the excellent Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, an amateur group with pretty professional productions, has on DVD a “Ruddigore” from 2011 that not only is a great performance but has the most complete score to date on video,.

Drawing from an opera by August Marschner, “Der Vampyr,” and mostly from Gilbert’s own earlier work, “Ages Ago,” the plot concerns a family curse in which each Lord of Ruddigore must commit a crime a day or “in torture he shall die.” I will not dwell upon the scenario (it is easily gotten from several websites). It is the Seattle production I wish to dwell upon.

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Original program. Note the spelling.

The voices are more than adequate for Sullivan’s score. On the other hand, some of Gilbert’s dialogue jokes could be delivered with a bit more speed. Petite Jenny Shotwell makes a properly gold-digging Rose Maybud, John Brooks successfully changes from timid Robin Oakapple  to reluctant dastard Ruthven, and Derek Sellers as Dick Dauntless nicely shows how his “heart’s dictates” always seem to work in his favor.

Note: The vampire in the Marschner work is named Ruthven.

Highlights are the double chorus to welcome the “bucks and blades,” the salute to the 4 seasons and of course the fastest patter song of them all.

Dave Ross is a short but villainous Sir Despard (although he could never pass for Ruthven’s younger brother). The priceless contralto Alyce Rogers comes into her own when as Dame Hannah she confronts Ruthven with dagger and sword; while Hollis Heron is properly loony as Mad Margaret. William Darkow makes an impressive ghostly Roderic, and Ron Gangnes’ (Old Adam) basso nicely supports the ensembles.

Many comic touches, not overdone, are created by Director Christine Goff; and Conductor Bernard Kwiram makes the most of the score. I wonder, however, why he does not use the original overture. See this company’s website at www.pattersong.org for information about ordering this and other DVDs in their catalogue. A warning though. The troupe sometimes plays fast and loose with Gilbert’s lyrics. Anachronistic ad libs are not funny and Gilbert does not need help. This “Ruddigore,” however, is free from that nonsense.

The running time is close to 150 minutes and one does miss subtitles!