Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss is a long way from being Johann Strauss and I would not normally pay a cent for anything by him --  but Der Rosenkavalier is often described as a comic opera.  So I thought that maybe Richard Strauss had his moments.  He didn't.  It was the DVD set from the 2004 Salzburg festival that I bought and I am mightily glad that I did not pay much for it.  There was not a single laugh in it that I could see  -- and not a single memorable aria.

I realize however that I am coming from a particular place. I like Austro/Hungarian operetta from either side of the dawning of the 20th century, and although Richard Strauss is of roughly that period, he is not of that ilk.  He belongs within the tradition of 19th century grand opera. He is a "romantic" in the sense that Wagner and Verdi were romantics. He has a few good moments but that is the best I can say of him.

Der Rosenkavalier was full of meandering "philosophical" reflections  that could have been completely excised for the benefit of the story -- and the first half of the show was a sustained display of disgusting behaviour.

Hitler liked the works of Richard Strauss and I think I can see why. "Baron Ox" would have been a sympathetic figure to Nazis. He is of course the very anathema to me.

The only thing that distinguishes the show from a 19th century grand opera is that it had a happy ending.  We must be thankful for small mercies I guess.  It was first performed in 1911 when operetta was in full popularity so the happy ending may have been a concession to the times.

Hmmmm.... On reflection, I guess that what I am supposed to find funny was the pomposity of the baron and his various downfalls.  But I found his egotism and bad attitude to women all too real. I guess I should watch it again but just watching it once was trial enough for me.  I just don't find arrogance and a bad attitude to women funny.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some foolish late-night reflections

Pace Robert Frost ("Reflection on The Road Not Taken")

In 1968 I contemplated becoming a German -- a  Prussian even.  The great marker of the Prussian is precise punctuality.  And I have that.  Joe does too so we often have some very precise arrangements between us which we both appreciate.  And Joe has a very military (and hence Prussian) attitude to food (refueling) too, which I also had at his age.  And I would certainly have been happy to wear a Pickelhaube, long gone though that now is.  And I am in fact a former army man anyway.  Prussians are particularly known as soldiers  -- not that I was a good one.

And Germany's rich cultural life would have suited me down to the ground.

In 1968 I had just completed an honours degree which included German II and in that year we did get some of our lectures in German -- about such world significant figures as Brockes (forgive the sarcasm) so my German was a lot better at that stage than it is now --  over 40 years later.  And I did take out in Sydney at that stage a German lady of elevated station back in German society.

So I thought of becoming a German and moving into a good position with her in German society. But being rather lazy, it seemed like too much trouble and Sydney women presented many interesting  possibilities too.  I even took for a short while an interest in a very shapely lady called Diane Rosenbloom -- with limited success.  It occurred to me only afterwards that Rosenbloom is an irrefragably Ashkenazi name so, not being Jewish, my chances with her had been minimal anyway.  She was a nice lady so I imagine that she entered shortly thereafter into a community-sanctioned marriage.

But what if I had realized then that I could possibly meet Ingeborg Hallstein in Germany?  Would I have decided differently? I might have.  I have just finished watching for the umpteenth time a 1971 recording of the wonderful Strauss II operetta Wiener Blut -- featuring as Graefin the beautiful coloratura soprano Ingeborg Hallstein, whom I see as the ultimate lady.  I was 25 in 1968 and she would have been 32.  That sort of age gap has never been a problem for me so what if I had gone to Germany and encountered her long, beautiful and wise face before me there?

I think I might have had a a chance with her.  I have always said that I get on with only about 1% of the world's women but that is one heck of a lot of ladies.  And the 1% ALWAYS includes classical music lovers -- which is my great delight too.  And that 1% is also pretty coterminous with the top 1% in IQ.

And most high IQ ladies are not at all comfortable with men who are dumber than them.  They have to be very good-natured to put up with it at all.  Though some wise ones do. So being in the top stratum myself, the very best women are accessible to me

So I have no doubt that Hallstein chose in her life men as musical as she is.  But although I am no good even as a bathroom singer, I would still, I think,  have had a chance with her.  IQ plus my devotion to classsical music might have won the day. A smart lady who sees my mocking blue eyes upon her knows immediately what company she has and regards it as at least interesting

And I did anyway many years later meet a Brisbane person who was also an ultimate lady. I had just married at the time but I knew an ultimate lady when I met one so a change of loyalties was rapidly accomplished.  Definitely Wiener Blut!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Holy apostle Paul

Anne, the lady in my life is, like me, an ex-Christian and our Christian past is still influential with us both.  She doesn't like the apostle Paul's view of the place of women, however -- as in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 11, for instance.  Being a born tease, however, I enjoy pointing out that according to the Bible, women should be submissive to their men.  Anne is no feminist but she is a pretty independent lady so she doesn't like Paul at all and why is he in in the Bible anyhow?

I replied that if God inspired the Bible writings, surely he could also make sure that the right documents were included in it.  On hearing that she burst into peals of laughter.  I am not totally sure why but I think she saw the logic in it and realized that you could not arbitrarily exclude Paul from being a divine messenger.

So how do I think the books of the Bible were chosen?  I do actually lean to an explanation that would fit in with God's guidance.  The history of the matter is that there was a considerable debate in the early days about which books were new revelation -- and various collections were made which embodied particular people's view of what was divine.  But after a while a consensus did emerge.  And it was an inclusive consensus:  Enough books were included to keep most people happy.

So was God behind that consensus?  Since I am an atheist I think not but a Christian could reasonably think so.  What I think happened is that those books which made most sense and sounded good at the time gradually, amid debate, came to be generally accepted as holy.

With his background in Greek learning, Paul was quite a good theologian, he wrote very energetically, wrote very extensively and he explicitly claimed divine guidance -- so it would appear that the whole available corpus of his writing was included.

And in the nature of these things, a tradition developed which saw that early consensus as authoritative.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wiener Blut -- a splendid farce

And a celebration of a great city

To Americans, a wiener is either a sausage or a private part of similar shape.  But in German neither Hamburgers nor Wieners are food items.  Both refer to the inhabitants of famous cities.  So Wiener Blut means "Vienna blood".  But what exactly that is we shall see.

In my well-spent youth in Sydney in the '70s I went to a lot of plays.  Sydney had a variety of them on at any one time and I took advantage of that -- seeing perhaps one play a week.  They weren't all good -- I walked out of a few -- but I enjoyed most of them, as did the ladies I took along.  Ladies LOVE going to plays. And there were among the plays I saw quite a few farces, including plays by that master of farce, Feydeau. And Wiener Blut is an excellent farce, worthy of Feydeau.  The show was written in 1899 and set in 1814.

Also in the early 70s, a lot of cinematic versions of operetta were made for German TV.  And the best of those are  now being released on DVD -- perhaps something to do with copyright. And a lot of the DVDs I have acquired are from that source.  An amusing consequence of that is that I see from time to time the same singers in different shows.  For me the '70s German operetta scene is still live. 

So the version of Wiener Blut that I have -- a 1971 production conducted by Kurt Graunke and directed by Hermann Lanske -- actually had three singers in it whose work I knew.  One of the reasons I bought that DVD was that it had the Austrian soprano Dagmar Koller in it, who is a genuinely lovely lady.  She is of my vintage but still survives. 

The point of it all

So let's look at the theme song which tells us what Das Wiener Blut is about.  The song itself defines such Blut as "Voller Kraft, Voller Glut! ... Was die Stadt Schönes hat, In dir ruht! Wiener Blut, Heisse Flut. (Roughly: "unique, full of fire, full of power, hot and flowing").  The idea is that the great city is embodied in its people. It basically means "high-spirited" -- bright and lively -- perhaps "gay" in the old meaning of that term -- and infidelity is accepted as part of that. If a man is not smitten by every beautiful woman he meets, he lacks Wiener Blut.  But operetta always has happy endings so in this case the Graf ends up falling in love with his wife! (As well he might!)

A wonderful farce. I am laughing as I write this.  But he only falls in love with his wife because his wife suddenly falls in love with him.  She had herself been before her marriage a gay and lively  Wiener ("Ich war ein echte Wiener Blut") and had thought that her husband lacked Wiener Blut -- until she saw and heard of his infidelities.  That convinced her that in Vienna he had become a real man by Vienna standards ("Aus dem soliden und strengen Mann wurde der flotteste Don Juan!  ... Sie wurden Mann von Welt").  So, as the wife, Ingeborg Hallstein was given a sophisticate's role.  And she conveys it with complete conviction and elegance.  It makes some sense that she wanted her man to be one who was desirable to other women.  See below:

So was there more than that with Wiener Blut?  Was it just a similar culture that Hallstein's character wanted?  Partly so, I think.  But Wien was at the time a great imperial city and civilizational centre so there was also there a longing for the high and sophisticated culture that existed in Wien.   At one stage Wien was undoubtedly the greatest city in the world since Constantinople/Byzantium.  To be and feel part of that was a great privilege.  And we see from the scenes of the ordinary people of the city at Hietzing that a love of their city included all orders of Viennese society.  They compared Wien to Heaven!

But other people esteem their city highly too.  We even have a rather good song of praise for Galveston!  And who can forget Elvis's "happy home" in Memphis, Tennessee?  London is a bit disappointing though. Such an amazing city seems to have produced only the Cockney song, "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner ..".  But nothing can compare with the frequent and brilliant songs of praise for Wien that occur throughout operetta.  And Wiener Blut is undoubtedly the leading example of that.

The casting

I did not think that Rene Kollo was well cast in Csardas Fuerstin  -- though he is undoubtedly a good and powerful singer -- but he suited his fickle part in Wiener Blut very well. As the Casanova he did not do any stern parts but when he was rumbled with his Geliebte in her floral and very modern underwear he managed to say "Ich auch" in a somewhat stern manner. And his surprised expressions when he encountered his seamstress Geliebte standing in for a Princess of Poland in the grand dance were spot on. The more I have listened to him, the more I appreciate his powerful and faultless tenor voice. And his diction is good too.  Regardless of the language of the song, operatic singing is often hard to follow, but Kollo's German is very clear.

But the real surprise for me  was German soprano Ingeborg Hallstein, of whom it has been said:  "Ingeborg Hallstein burst onto the scene in 1959 with an uncommonly sweet voice and beautiful face and figure, which immediately moved her front and center in German musical life."

There is a lot of her work available on CD -- for good reason -- but almost nothing on DVD.  But what a lady! An elegantly beautiful woman.  She conveyed eloquently the air of sophistication that her role as Graefin called for.  She really has the sort of face that would launch a thousand ships -- a face of both character and beauty. And she has the long neck that one normally finds only in beautiful Northern European women.  Virginia Woolf was another example. So Hallstein was a most convincing Graefin!

But is her beauty in part a function of stage makeup?  I don't discount that. On the few occasions that I have appeared on TV, I have been amazed about how the makeup artists were able to banish my facial spots.  But we do  get a lot of closeups in this show that clearly show Hallstein's stage makeup.  And it clearly just emphasizes already beautiful features.  

There is one thing that I am not sure that I should mention. Hallstein has some sort of mole on her lower face.  So why did not the makeup artists blot that out?   There was apparently in times past such a thing as a "beauty spot" and that idea still lives to some extent.  Don't ask me for the logic of it (if any) but some sort of facial blemish on a beautiful lady was held to be an enhancement rather than a blemish.  So Hallstein has it all.

KS Hallstein is a remarkable singer too.  She is known for her range and she does show a bit of it on a couple of occasions in this show.  It is not a big voice but it is probably just right for the ultimate lady that she is. Needless to say, she has long been recognized as Kammersängerin (KS).

If you want to really hear what she can do as a high coloratura soprano there is a 1965 B&W film clip below where she sings the haunting nightingale song by Franz Grothe from the 1941 German film "Die Schwedische Nachtigall".

Hallstein has been described as having crystal bells in her throat and that clip will tell you why.  (Lyrics for the nightingale song here).  In a sound-only file here you also hear her in high coloratura mode -- singing the wonderful An der schoenen blauen Donau, Austria's unofficial national anthem.  

The Donau (Danube) is shown in appropriate blue in the map below -- though I gather that it is rarely blue these days:


Hallstein was said in the 60s and 70s to be "die weltweit beste Königin der Nacht" (the world's best "Queen of the Night") and I can believe it. She is still alive and active on judging panels in her late 70s.  

Note: There is also a "Spanish" nightingale operetta, "Die Spanische Nachtigall" by Leo Fall. And also a Nachtigall song in Zeller's Vogelhaendler. You have to keep your nightingales straight.

And Hallstein's facial expressions and body language were brilliant too. She is a superb actress as well as a remarkable singer.  It seems to come naturally.  It probably does. She is as good as any Hollywood actress at living her part and better than most of them at subtlety of expression.  

An example of that which I really enjoyed was her very small but rightly contemptuous gesture of dismissal -- mainly just a tiny and momentary inclination of her head combined with a small "Oh!" -- when she first saw one of her rivals, little Helga. Her vocalization there was not even an Ach!.  She knew that she was miles ahead of that "rival".  And the scene where she asks the clumsy Prince to take her to Hietzing was brilliantly done.  I laugh every time I think of it.  It was almost an enchiridion of feminine wiles there.  She knew her power and even found it amusing.

And her expressions as she spoke with her flirtatious husband were also well done. She showed subtly that she did not believe a word of his attempted deceptions but was amused by them instead -- indulgent and quietly confident expressions.  She was aware of her high standing in Wiener society so was not easily abashed.  She has irrefragable dignity.

I have seen and heard other versions of the Wiener Blut song but I think Hallstein here is better than them all (see the clip above).  What a stunning woman!  The other women in the show are girls compared to her.  That clip may in fact get my vote for the most beautiful scene in operetta.  There are other strong candidates  -- such as Die ganze welt is Himmelblau with A.K. Wigger at Moerbisch in 2008 or Martina Serafin's in Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum in the Moerbisch performance of Vogelhaendler but  the emotion is so intense in the above scene that it certainly gets to me.

Not that I would say a critical word about the other two ladies in the show. Dagmar Koller once again came across as a lovely and lovable lady. Let me say that again: Despite what could have been a bitchy role, Dagmar Koller once again came across as a lovely and lovable lady.  She is a honey.  I suspect she would not accept casting any other way.  

And little Helga Papouschek as the servant's girlfriend was well cast. She has a certain prettiness but is no beauty -- a point made in the show when the two beautiful ladies (the Graefin and "Cagliari") agreed that they  could forgive the Graf that one.  She was in their view no threat to them. Wiener Blut!  

She has been described elsewhere as a "vielseitige Schauspielerin und Sängerin" (a many-sided actress and singer) and I can see that. She has a squeaky little voice but she gets her notes well enough.  She portrayed various moods very  well and looked right for her part.  She certainly showed various sides in this show.  And her role as a seamstress in a Polish hat standing in for a princess of Poland in the grand dance was one of the good jokes of the show.  And her  comment earlier on in the show that the overweight Polish princess might have been overdoing the cakes was as irreverent as it was apposite.

And we must not for a moment forget the character actors. Benno Kusche did his part as the confused Prince superbly well and Ferry Gruber as Josef the servant was very convincing.  He was very clever in fact.  He was as good a character actor as you could get and he certainly got the laughs, probably about half of them in fact.  There was brilliant acting throughout the show.

The costumes

A small note about riding habits:  I was much impressed with the riding habit worn by "Lisa" in Das Land des Laechelns but the outfit worn by Hallstein in this show was pretty good too.  I think that up until now I had only seen Englishwomen in riding gear.  Austrians do it infinitely better.  There is a low rez clip below that gives you an idea of Hallstein's outfit -- and also follows her into her visit to her old home at Döbling.  The beginning of the clip shows her actually riding a horse so the outfit was apparently practical.  She looks good most of the time but in her riding habit and riding hat she was really something  -- both while riding and after riding. 

Part of the attractiveness of the riding scene was the beautiful grounds through which she trots her horse. I gather that that scene was recorded in the grounds of the Palais Strattmann in Vienna.

I think the point of such an elaborate habit is that you could get off a horse and immediately be dressed for the best society.  I note that the lovely Dagmar Koller was also presented in a flowing riding habit in the vignettes of her pre-marital times in Csardasfuerstin

The golden garment with lots of ermine trim on the hood and sleeves that Hallstein wore to Hietzing also impressed me.  Not everyone could have worn such a garment effectively but on Hallstein it created a great image of privilege and luxury.  It complemented and framed her beauty.  A face framed in ermine certainly has a good start.  Dagmar Koller also wore a similar rather gorgeous flowing garment at Hietzing.

Some of the scenes at Hietzing below

The garments both ladies wore were dominos, all-covering garments often worn to masked balls and the like. They are a way of hiding in plain sight and both ladies in this story were indeed trying to hide at Hietzing. There are some modern ladies' garments called that but they are totally out of touch with the late-19th-century original, with its hoods, big sleeves, fancy trims and the like.  Below is a picture of a lady wearing a pink domino at a performance of Heuberger's Opernball

And Hallstein looked so happy in that scene.  Good to see.  I suspect that she is basically a happy lady who suppressed her good humour only slightly in the scenes where she is dealing with the attempted deceptions of the Graf.

Perhaps the elaborate Fächer (hand-held fan) much used by Hallstein in the show deserves a mention.  It is very feathery and is obviously meant to be part of a lady's ensemble rather than merely utilitarian.  She certainly uses it expressively.


Interesting that Hallstein wore small stars in her hair for much of the time.  In operetta it is very common for the ladies to wear laurel wreaths  -- but not in this show:  Diamond stars as a hair adornment were invented by the rather tragic Empress Elizabeth of Austria around about 1860 so seeing them in this  show (set in 1814) is a bit anachronistic but certainly glamorous.  They do convey elegance.  Anne tells me that you can still buy in Vienna hair stars such as Hallstein wore.  So perhaps that is the practical reason why they were used.

It was Anne who told me about hair stars. I know nothing about the mysteries of ladies' hair, other than having a general view that more is better.  I have even bullied Anne into wearing her hair long, even though she is a lady of advanced years. I have of course scriptural support for my view of the matter (1 Corinthians 11:15) but even in the human race's oldest literary work, "The epic of Gilgamesh", we find a view that long hair is proper for women.

And I still have not figured out how Schellenberger in the one year (2004) had both very short hair (in Graefin Maritza) and very long and gorgeous hair (in Lustige Witwe).  Lustige Witwe  could have come first, of course, but as a "Daily Mail" reader I am aware that there are such things as hair extensions -- but I have no idea how that works at all.  But when Gilfry was fiddling with Schellenberger's hair in the Lippen  Schweigen scene I was mentally warning him to be careful of those extensions.  Fortunately, he was.

A few other details

Some of the jokes come very quickly and you have to be alert to get them.  One such was when Hallstein was offered a jumping jack but she declined to buy, saying as the seller walked away:  Ich hab' schon eine (I have already got one) -- meaning probably her husband. Another joke was the stern and prowling geheime Staatspolizist (secret policeman) at Hietzing in his brown hat. (OK.  He was just a Geheime Polizist.  We know who in history the Geheime Staatspolizei were, don't we?)

I was amused when the sausage king described Hallstein as "a dazzling piece of construction" and her rival as an "architectural masterpiece".  We see architectural allusions to the looks of a lady in other operettas too, notably Kalman's Graefin Maritza and Lehar's Die lustige Witwe.

And I also wonder a little what the sausage king's sausages were like.  As a sausage devotee I entirely agree with the prominence they were given in the show.  My devotion to sausages could make me a good German.  A good sausage is a work of art!

When the Graf is trying to seduce the wily seamstress with invocations of Stoss an (drink up), he orders Wiener Wein to help the proceedings.  I wonder what the wine was?  The most popular Austrian wine these days seems to be Grüner Veltliner, which is a rather undistinguished wine IMHO -- reminiscent of an Australian Hunter Valley  Semillion. Maybe he had in mind Gemischter Satz, which would have been around in the early 19th century.  

Gemischter Satz is in fact grown and produced in Vienna itself. So it really is a Wiener Wein. Vienna actually has its own vineyards on the outskirts of the city. Austria as a whole is a significant wine-producing region.  It exports to Germany. I noticed at the big party in Hietzing that everyone seemed to be drinking wine, not beer.  Not a North/South difference this time, I think.  Maybe just a Wiener difference?  

We saw a North/South difference when the (presumably) Northern Prince told the (Southern) sausage king to speak German, remarking that the sausage king's German sounded like Tibetan.  In good Southern style, the sausage king was not at all abashed and just carried on. There was rather a lot of commentary about Wiener speech being "different" and I gather that there are still such differences.

I am no authority on anything German and I know only the basics about North/South differences but I noted that the sausage king pronounced junge Leute as junge Leiter and there is no doubt that could cause amazement or amusement.

Another detail of the show that interested me was the novels the Graefin took out of her bookcase.  Because I had never heard of him I looked up Christoph Martin Wieland.  He was apparently a rather light novelist, best known for translating Shakespeare into German.

Realism and operetta have a limited relationship -- though I don't like deliberate anachronism.  So I cannot be censorious about a very curious thing about the streets of Vienna that we see in this  show: The streets were sparkling clean.  But the streets of of a great city in the 19th century would have been much used by horses and various horse-drawn conveyances.  And what does that produce?  Huge amounts of horse-manure and horse-pee in the streets.  The real-life streets of Vienna at that time would have stunk to high heaven and soiled anybody who walked them. Sorry for that totally inappropriate burst of realism.

The wrap-up

As endings go, this has to be the supreme operetta -- with FOUR happy couples at the end of it: All waltzing and singing Das Wiener Blut of course. Superb, superb! (As the  French Vicomte said in  Lustige Witwe when he heard that the widow was worth 500 million francs). Even the sausage king finds his match. 

It's hard to believe that the show was initially a flop.  Bizet died thinking "Carmen" was a failure too. The first producer of Wiener Blut was bankrupted by its failure and shot himself!  A terrible contrast between reality and fantasy. 

And the praise of Vienna as being unique and happy is of course common in operetta. One thinks of the joy in the two second-string stars of Zirkusprinzessin when they discover in cold St. Petersburg that they are both from warm Wien.  And the Princess in Vogelhaendler at her first appearance in that play is also proud to proclaim that she is a gay Wiener.  But a heterosexual one, of course.

And, as usual in operetta, the waltz (Der Walzer in German) is both much practiced and warmly praised.  And something I noticed at the end of one of the waltzes was that the ladies did a low curtsey to their men at the end of the dance.  I am aware that there can still at formal balls be a certain amount of bowing and curtseying at the beginning of a dance but I had not seen it as the conclusion of a dance.  Is that still widely practiced?  I have no idea.  But someone should bring it back routinely.  It would make the feminists burst into flames!

Some reflections

And an inevitable reflection that Wiener Blut inspires is how we mere mortals live up to the splendid life in Wien that it portrays.  I am sure I score a zero on glamour but, although I am no Wiener, the fact that I have been married four times to four fine women must testify to some sort of "Blut"!

But have I had in my life an ultimate lady such as Hallstein?  A lady who is beautiful, smart, confident, socially acclaimed, very musical and kind?  And have I walked through a crowded room with the lady to see her greeted with pleasure by many? (As Hallstein did with Kollo in the grand ball)?  I have done that. And I treasure the experience.  She may even read this.  Unlike Hallstein, she does not have crystal bells in her throat but I think we can both overlook that.  A real lady is a great pleasure to us mere men.

And what is the role of culture in male/female relationships?  With the lady I mentioned above  it was  very important.  She once said to me:  "I could forgive you anything because of the way you feel about music".  But there is more to it than that.  

The lady in my life these days is in fact a good soprano but that is rather incidental -- though we do sing some of the great old Protestant hymns together at times!  What she and I have in common is small-town Protestant Queensland culture.  We come from very similar environments. When I speak broad Australian she understands. We sound right to one-another.  It really pleases me to use traditional Australian expressions.

The great aria

Here it is in full:

Das Wiener Blut! 

Wiener Blut!
Wiener Blut! 
Eig'ner Saft 
Voller Kraft, 
Voller Glut! 

Du erhebst, 
Du belebst 
Unsern Mut! 

Wiener Blut! 
Wiener Blut! 
Was die Stadt 
Schönes hat, 
In dir ruht! 

Wiener Blut, 
Heisse Flut 
Gilt das Wort: 
Wiener Blut! 

I know the literal meaning of all the words but it would be maddening to try to translate it adequately so I am not going to try.  Someone bolder than I am has however subtitled it  here in an old performance by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.  Rather sad that the undoubtedly distinguished Schwarzkopf is roughly twice as wide as Hallstein.

Librettos are online here and here but performances of course differ so neither  corresponds exactly to the DVD performance
Perhaps I should in closing pay tribute the librettists, Victor Léon and Leo Stein. The fun was entirely their work.  A later libretto for which Léon and Stein were responsible was that of Lehár's highly successful "The Merry Widow". Strauss was in his last days when this show was created and, although he approved of the project, he did not specifically compose any music for it, although many of his earlier compositions were incorporated, as we can hear. He was mostly content to delegate the musical arrangements to Adolf Müller. You have to get your Adolfs right!  -- JR

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Das Land des Laechelns

This blog was not at all designed to attract a large audience.  It was designed primarily as a backup to my appalling memory of events in my own life and secondarily as something that a few people who know me well might like to read.  As a distant third it could function as something that people with similar interests to mine might come to via the inestimable services of Google.

But I imagine its already small audience may have shrunk this year.  "It's all full of bloody German these days", I can imagine  people saying.  And German does come across as a rather intimidating language, I think.  But for better or worse German is the language of classical music so a love of the music does tend to lead to texts in German. I do try to translate most of it but that would be too big a job with libretti etc.

Anyway, I had a rather eventful day yesterday by my humble standards. At lunchtime I drove to Tingalpa in my 1963 Humber Super Snipe to see Anne and her friend Lola.  An outing in the Humber always gives me some sense of an occasion and it gives that to others too.  I get the sort of praise for driving it that owners of those combustible supercars can only aspire too, I imagine.  Given the heat that their mighty engines produce, I suppose it is no wonder that supercars regularly burst into flames and end up as charred wrecks. The Humber is a powerful car but nowhere near that powerful, thankfully.

I don't drive the Humber much these days so it was around a month since I had started it up.  The battery was by then pretty flat, but, with good Humber engineering, the motor did start anyway.  I drove it yesterday both because I might have risked some sort of corrosion had I left it longer and also because Lola is British (in an East African kind of way) and I knew she would be pleased to see such a splendid old British car.  Britain still produces a lot of cars but they almost all bear names such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan these days.  Though Jaguar has made a comeback under Indian ownership.

So when I got back home from Tingalpa I wrote up a small but predictably eccentric memoir of the occasion and then proceeded to compile my blogs for the day -- which I managed despite a more limited timeframe than usual.  I even managed to write a few derisive comments about Global Warming and the Leftist "New Matilda".  Writing takes time so my memoir had to be the only extended thing I wrote yesterday.

But the climax of the day lay ahead at that point.  I received during the day a DVD of a "new" (to me) operetta: Lehar's  Das Land des Laechelns. So late in the evening I sat down to watch it.

I have the 2001 Moerbisch performance of the show. Das Land des Laechelns means "The land of smiles" -- i.e. China.  I was very curious to see how a Viennese composer and his librettists would write about China!    My skepticism that Austrians could write reasonably about China in 1923 was actually rather unfair.  Chinoiserie had been very popular even in the late Belle epoque (before WWI) so China was hardly a mystery by then. And interest in the Far East generally had been greatly aroused in 1905 when Japan's admiral Togo sank most of the Russian navy!

The opening scenes of operetta are often pretty forgettable and I tend to skip them on re-watching a show but the opening brackets of this  show were all devoted to showing the supreme grace and elegance of the great city so were very pleasing to watch.

The story

The show was basically in two parts: First in Vienna then in China. The first part was where most of the jokes were -- though the eunuch scene in the second half of the play had some very good lighter moments too.

The story is that a Viennese lady and a Chinese prince fall in love in Vienna and both then go to China -- with unhappy results.

The idea that a smallish East Asian man might fancy a big blue eyed blonde from Northern Europe was very plausible. For better or worse, the Nordic ideal of beauty is the default ideal worldwide.  Something like 95% of the world's blonde ladies were not born that way.  Even in Japan, ladies blond their hair.

Blue eyes are also much admired but, unlike hair, eyes are not so changeable. I checked my blue-eyed privilege and married four blue eyed ladies -- so I have a blue-eyed son.  And his blue-eyed GF augurs well for the next generation. Leftists these days often tell us to "check your privilege" but I don't think they would approve of my version of that.  Their version is just Marxist claptrap anyway.

In part 1 of the Singspiel we first heard the famous "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("You are my heart's delight"). It is a great and famous aria and was originally written by Lehar for Richard Tauber so it seemed a bit strange to hear it sung by an Asian  tenor. Sangho Choi gave an impassioned performance, however, so did it justice. Tauber sings it in English here. I am inclined to think that the Korean (Sangho Choi as the Chinese Prince)  sang it better, actually. The audience at Moerbisch certainly applauded it heartily.

And the second half of the show was surprisingly dark and tragic for an operetta.  The lady goes to China but can't fit in there so has to make her escape.  Her lover reverts to Chinese form and she ends up tragically by declaring to him:  "Ich hasse dich" ("I hate you").

So the ending is low-key by operetta standards. The lady and her Viennese admirer are happily reunited and escape back to their beloved Wien but the Chinese players are left desolate. Not good. Had it been grand opera, everyone would have died, so we have to be thankful for small mercies, I suppose.

It's interesting how times have changed.  Wien was once THE city and China was a backwater.  These days it is just about opposite to that.


I was MOST impressed by the magnificent riding habit "Lisa" (Ingrid Habermann) wore for her entry to the show.  I have not seen anything before remotely as good.  It must be Austrian elegance.

And the military hats on the men in the early scenes initially rather confounded me. They were such an unostentatious type of shako that I thought at first that they were French pillbox caps. But in fact we see below the unfortunate Archduke Ferdinand in a similar shako. The costume department did their homework.

Speaking of hats, was this the first time Serafin trotted out absurd green plumes on his hat?  He did it in Weissen Roessl too.  A good comic touch.

Towards the end of the first part, I loved the old car that took "Lisa" away.  A bit like a very well-appointed A-model Ford.

The cast

And we got in part 1 a good introduction to Ingrid Habermann as the lady the Chinese Prince fancied -- a regal and classically good looking Vienna lady with blue eyes and a great mop of blonde hair.  I would have fancied her too. I did, after all, once marry a lady with a great mop of blonde hair.  Habermann was presented as the aspirational Austrian lady, even wearing a substantial tiara at one stage -- showing her as a princess of Viennese society.

The contrast in appearance between Habermann and her Chinese admirer was of course deliberate.

Habermann is actually Austrian -- from Linz -- so the part would have been very congenial and easy for her. She really is an aspirational Austrian lady.  Even the blonde hair may well have been real.  The age of most operatic ladies seems to be a State Secret so I was not able to ascertain her DoB but I suspect that she was in her 30s for this show.  She was a touch "broad in the beam" for youth, if I may add a nautical simile to the architectural similes that one sometimes finds in operatta.

Austria is in fact rather Southerly in Europe but the Nordics from both the North and South coasts of the Baltic have been marauding South for well over 2,000 years so seem to have left rather a lot of their genetics in Austria. So much so that we hear that Die ganze Welt ist himmelblau there.  There are some brilliant blue eyes in Austria to this day.  Austria looks like a rather nice bit of territory so maybe a lot of Nordics never went home from there.

But the show was a magnificent part for Habermann and she went from strength to strength thereafter.  Moerbisch has been a place of takeoff for many singers and I am hoping that will work for Cornelia Zink (seen in Bettelstudent) as well.

Intendant Harald Serafin gave most of the jokes in the show  to himself.  He is very good at comic parts so that was fair enough.  He always took a part in Moerbisch performances as well as directing them.

He got his post at Moerbisch because he was already a great actor and singer and I have always liked him in his various roles.  Even in 2011 when he rather lost the plot at Moerbisch he did his own part very well.

Apparently I was not the only one who thought he lost the plot in 2011. The year after 2011 his audience at Moerbisch declined -- resulting in him being retired against his wishes.  So Schellenberger got his job.  And she did it well, with audiences numbers recovering in 2013 (with Bettelstudent).

After watching the show  again, I still laughed at all the jokes again.  Serafin delivers them expertly.  His dry comment on a Chinese "dirndl" was exquisite, as was his non-recognition of Confucius.

But Serafin does his tragic scene well too. His tragic final call to his departing daughter not to forget Vienna is very significant.  As I have argued previously, Vienna at that time was what New Yorkers think NYC is -- the center of the civilized world.  And she later did admit with passion how much she missed Wien.  Only in her hometown could she be "free".  New Yorkers would understand.

Speaking of jokes, another was when "Gustl" (Gustav) in the second half excused himself from being a fickle Viennese by saying that he was from "Burgenland", I thought that was quite good.  The audience did too.  That got a laugh, though not a big one. Burgenland is of course where Moerbish is located.  But Mitani's reply was good too: "Isn't that the same?"  Moerbisch and Vienna are only about 60 kilometers apart, from memory.  Most of the shows from Moerbisch do incorporate some reference to it -- most often in a complaint about the mosquitoes there.

And I must pay some tribute to Yuko Mitani, the Japanese soprano playing the Prince's sister.  Having a Japanese playing a Chinese was no problem, of course.  They all look the same, you know.  Jokes aside, however, by her manner she could have been a Viennese lady.  I guess it shows how much of Western culture Japan has absorbed.  She was certainly as expressive as one could wish, quite un-Japanese, it seems to me. The show was part-sponsored by NHK in Tokyo so perhaps it all fits somehow. Most of Mitani's singing history has been in the German lands.

A final point of amusement: There were no actual Chinese in the show. The Chinese parts were mainly played by Japanese plus one Korean (Sangho Choi). Serafin would have got into trouble if he done that in politically correct America.  And even I am a bit stunned to find that Sangho Choi is an acclaimed interpreter of German Lieder.  What is the world coming to? Sangho Choi deserves his success, however.

The show is also reviewed here, with a more comprehensive account of the plot.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A lunch with Yersinia pestis

Anne shouted me a lunch today of some very good North African tagine.  The lunch was so I could meet an old friend of hers.  And I mean old.  Lola is 90 but still has all her marbles.

I started out the meeting with a conversational gambit you won't find in any etiquette book.  I guess it's my pesky sense of humour again but I started by offering some comments about Yersinia pestis.  But both Anne and Lola are intelligent persons so that was treated as interesting.

I pointed out that we are all survivors of people who did NOT die during the Black Death, even though the epidemic took off about a third of the inhabitants of England.  So if there were a new such epidemic, the chances of survival for most of us would probably be quite good even without antibiotics.  And Yersinia pestis hasn't gone away.  There were some cases of it in Madagascar recently, of all places.

I then went on to say that it was probably the people in poorest health that died in the 1300s anyway.  I supported that by an anecdote from my childhood.  We oldies tend to talk a lot about our childhoods.  

The story is that TB was making something of a nuisance of itself in the Australia of the 1950s so the government decided to immunize all schoolkids against it with the remarkable BCG vaccine, a French product.  But to avoid waste they did not vaccinate everybody.  

They first did a Mantoux skin test on all us kids to see if we were already immune to TB. And all but one of the kids in my class returned a positive response.  We had already had TB without knowing it and were hence immune and in no need of any vaccine. For us well-fed and healthy kids in the benign tropics, TB was experienced just as a mild bout of 'flu and we had fully recovered from it.  So even nasty infections and viruses can be batted away if you are in generally good health.

The conversation strayed into other channels after that, with Rhodesia getting a mention.  Lola is of British East African origin and, at university, I once headed an "Australia/Rhodesia society", which was a very successful bait to the campus Left.

But Anne's food was good.  To complement the tagine, Anne had bought a big loaf of unsliced bread from her local Chinese bakery -- and that baker sure knows how to bake good bread.  So with plenty of butter out of Anne's antique butter dish, I enjoyed it muchly.  

Anne wanted to offer us some wine with our lunch but neither Lola nor I drink during the day so Anne stayed "dry" too, not entirely to her satisfaction.  I did entertain Lola with stories about Anne's dedication to "Barossa Pearl", a dedication which I share, not being a wine snob.  So we finished with a nice cup of tea -- "Bushells", the tea of flavour -- and an Anzac biscuit.

On rare occasions when I enter snooty coffee joints and ask for tea they complacently ask me which tea I want -- English Breakfast, Earl Gray etc.  I always reply: "Bushells", the tea of flavour".  They look at me as if I am mad. Australia's most popular tea is terminally uncool to them. I enjoy that reaction.  I am a born tease, particularly of pomposity.

UPDATE:  In case anybody is interested, a new drug to treat plague has just been approved in the USA. Excerpt below:

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Did Bach set Psalm 23?

As I have mentioned previously, the most popular setting of Psalm 23 is Crimond, from Jessie Seymour Irvine, but many composers have set it.  So did the greatest religious composer of all time also set it?

He did but not in the way often asserted.  His aria "Sheep may  safely graze" is often said to be his version of Psalm 23 but its wording has next to nothing in common with the psalm.  See the words below:

Schafe koennen sicher weiden,
Sheep can safely graze
Wo ein guter Hirte wacht.
where a good shepherd watches over them.
Wo Regenten wohl regieren,
Where rulers are ruling well,
Kann man Ruh und Friede spueren
we may feel peace and rest
Und was Laender gluecklich macht.
and what makes countries happy.

The aria is sublime music but it in fact is part of a whole cantata devoted to currying favour with his aristocratic patron, Duke Christian.  It is not religious at all.  The aria is from Cantata 208: Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd ("Hunting is the only thing that satisfies me").

Bach left few tempi notations in his MSS but most conductors do it as an adagio, though largo would also defensible and some conductors have adopted that.  I am with the majority there. Sir Neville Marriner's interpretation below. It is so beautiful it makes me cry:

The cantata (no. 112) that does contain a setting of the psalm is "Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt" -- to a German text by Wolfgang Meuslin.  It's on YouTube e.g. below:

The words:

1. Coro
Corno I/II, Oboe d'amore I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt,
Hält mich in seiner Hute,
Darin mir gar nichts mangeln wird
Irgend an einem Gute,
Er weidet mich ohn Unterlass,
Darauf wächst das wohlschmeckend Gras
Seines heilsamen Wortes.

2. Aria A
Oboe d'amore solo, Continuo

Zum reinen Wasser er mich weist,
Das mich erquicken tue.
Das ist sein fronheiliger Geist,
Der macht mich wohlgemute.
Er führet mich auf rechter Straß
Seiner Geboten ohn Ablass
Von wegen seines Namens willen.

3. Recitativo B
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Und ob ich wandelt im finstern Tal,
Fürcht ich kein Ungelücke
In Verfolgung, Leiden, Trübsal
Und dieser Welte Tücke,
Denn du bist bei mir stetiglich,
Dein Stab und Stecken trösten mich,
Auf dein Wort ich mich lasse.

4. Aria (Duetto) S T
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Du bereitest für mir einen Tisch
Vor mein' Feinden allenthalben,
Machst mein Herze unverzagt und frisch,
Mein Haupt tust du mir salben
Mit deinem Geist, der Freuden Öl,
Und schenkest voll ein meiner Seel
Deiner geistlichen Freuden.

5. Coro
Corno I/II, Oboe d'amore I e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe d'amore II e Violino II coll' Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo

Gutes und die Barmherzigkeit
Folgen mir nach im Leben,
Und ich werd bleiben allezeit
Im Haus des Herren eben,
Auf Erd in christlicher Gemein
Und nach dem Tod da werd ich sein
Bei Christo meinem Herren.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why I like Austro/Hungarian operetta

Austro/Hungarian operetta is light-hearted opera written  around a hundred years ago principally for the entertainment of the inhabitants of Wien (Vienna) which was at that time the capital of an ancient and major European state, the Austro/Hungarian empire.

Before the 19th century, opera was fairly cheerful. And among his 22 operas, Mozart in particular wrote a lot of Opera buffa, comic opera.  Comic or not, just the brilliant overtures of some of Mozart's operas reduce me to tears of joy. There is something unearthly in Mozart, for those who can hear it. But even Handel operas had a lot of joy in them.  At the finale of Giulio Cesare, for instance, we find in the finale everybody lined up and singing lustily a triumphant song.

But in the more famous 19th century, French and Italian opera became much more morbid.  They are romantic but everybody seems to die at the end of them. In "Carmen", for instance, Carmen gets stabbed to death by her jealous lover and in "Aida" the lovers end up immured.  So I enjoy the wonderful arias from 19th century French and Italian opera but I have never been inclined to watch much of the operas concerned:  Too bleak for me.  So for a long time, my liking for opera stopped at Mozart.

I have long been familiar with the more famous arias from operetta but grand opera had long put me off wanting to watch anything even vaguely recent.  About 6 months ago, however, I somehow got motivated to have a look at the more famous operettas, starting, of course, with  Im weissen Roessl, "The white horse inn" -- in the Moerbisch performance.  I was immediately enraptured: good music, great jokes, attractive singers, joyous dancing, total romance and a gloriously happy ending.  What more could one ask?  Realistic it was not but great fun it was. I must have watched the show somewhere between 30 and 50 times by now but I still laugh at the jokes every time.  They are that good.

And subsequently, of course I have watched many more Austro/Hungarian operettas, by Lehar, Strauss II, Kalman and others.  They are frivolous escapism but after reading and writing serious stuff about politics all day, I watch them at night and that balances out my day.

Operettas and indeed most operas are romantic -- even though the outcome differs.  I am inclined to think that the most romantic of all is Zarewitsch by Lehar. And in true operetta style, advancing the romance by getting the heir to the throne of all  the Russias drunk on champagne is a definite classic.  Vienna was never a place for teetotalling.  There must have been trainloads of champagne going from the vineyards of France to Vienna.

Anne, the lady in my life, has always been a singer -- both as a soprano soloist and as a chorister.  She even used to sing on street corners with the Salvation Army -- back when they still did that -- something that greatly enhances my respect for her.  I remember those meetings.  The participants showed true obedience to their Lord (Matthew 28: 19,20). So after many years of singing, both on stage and off, Anne knows opera well.

She seems to have a particular liking for Wagner, which is fairly common among opera buffs. She has certainly put in the hours watching it.  The thought of sitting and watching a Wagner opera for hours on end seems to me unutterably boring however.  But De gustibus non disputandum est, of course.

So recently I was discussing Wagner with Anne and I said to her that his stuff was too heavy for me.  "I prefer Viennese frivolity", I said.  Anne replied: "You can have it". But she knows the main arias from operetta quite well so she was speaking from knowledge.  And we still like a lot of the same classical music so my devotion to operetta is forgiven.

Although it is easy to enjoy, I would like to make the case that it is actually very sophisticated entertainment.  For a start, the artistic requirements of both grand opera and operetta are quite high. The vocal feats required of the singers are maximal in both genres and good acting is, if anything, even more important in operetta.  Putting a joke across requires some very good timing and expression. And it is broadly the same singers who sing in both.

Secondly, Austro/Hungarian operetta was written for people who had it all.  They lived at the heart of an enormously rich civilization.  Vienna before WWI was not only a great and rich imperial capital with many nations under its rule but it was also at the cutting edge culturally and intellectually.

It was, for instance, the time and place of the immensely influential Sigmund Freud, by far the leading psychologist of the time. He was a great observer and I  quote him occasionally still. And the immense distinction of Vienna in analytical philosophy cannot be gainsaid -- Schlick, Wittgenstein etc.  And in economics the luminaries of the prewar Austrian school (Carl Menger; Eugen Böhm Ritter von Bawerk etc.) are honoured to this day -- though not among Leftists.  Vienna had a very good claim at that time to be the intellectual capital of the world.

And, musically, it started out on top -- with the enormous heritage of the great Austrian composers -- Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert etc -- so any new compositions had a lot to live up to.  And the wonder is that some composers stood out even in that environment -- with Strauss II being merely the best known of many.  And there were vast numbers of innovative Viennese artists too, led by Klimt in particular

So the Viennese had it all. And what you want when you have it all is entertainment.  And to be entertaining to such an indulged and sophisticated audience you had to be pretty good.  So I see the lightness and frivolity of operetta not as trivial but as a major cultural achievement.

BTW: I ate last night at a new Indian restaurant in Woolloongabba, the "Delights of paradise".  And the food rather amazingly lived up to that ambitious name.  But it was SLOW in arriving so I ended up watching a goodly portion of a Bollywood movie while I waited.  And it struck me that Hindu movies have a lot in common with operetta.  Both have a LOT of singing and dancing, principally, though the Indians have yet to discover the joy of the waltz.

As far as I can tell, waltzing seems to have a rather staid reputation in the Anglosphere but it is not at all staid in Austro/Hungarian operetta.  The joyous climax to a waltz can be where the lady throws her arms out wide while the man spins her around with his hands on her waist only.  That is very exciting.  Feminists would hate it. So I hope that Indians will discover the waltz some day.  I gather that Indian movies are very romantic so let me close with a famous line from Im weissen Roessl:  "Ein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein" (A song of love has to be a waltz).

Feminists would hate the scene above but I'm betting that the lady concerned was pleased to be there.