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.

 

“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.

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.