in: Reviews

August 12, 2016

Offenbach and Novello: As Different As Can Be

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Two more different musical shows can hardly be imagined than Offenbach’s frothy “theater of the absurd” La Vie Parisienne, which was Thursday’s matinee at the Ohio Light Opera, before the evening disclosed a very rare production of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, a grand old-fashioned show of the kind you hardly see now, with a bittersweet love story between a Viennese operetta composer and the love of his life, who through a misunderstanding marries someone else. The plot runs between 1911 and 1938 (the final scene takes place after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria). The shows are at opposite ends of the spectrum in the world of musical theater.

It is quite amazing to experience a single company of actor-singers (38, selected out of some 500 auditions), a single orchestra, and a single production company putting together a day of such variety—and even more so to realize that two other productions, of varying periods and styles, had been performed on the day before and two more would be performed on the day after. This fact certainly astonished all of the visitors from England, Germany, and Hungary who had taken part in the symposium but had never visited Wooster, Ohio, or perhaps even heard of it before this summer.

The morning sessions of the symposium were more specifically a kind of entertainment than on the other days. First Marjan Kiepura showed a number of extended clips from musical films featuring his parents—tenor Jan Kiepura and soprano Marta Eggert—with commentary by Marjan and his wife Jane Knox. There were examples of distinguished operatic singing in contexts designed to reach the general audience that could not be expected to afford visits to the Vienna State Opera (where a bust of Jan Kiepura commemorates his popularity and artistry). Some of these offered plots of offstage romance that also intertwined with opportunities for extended musical numbers. The singing was glorious—there is no question why they were so popular—and some of the comic acting in these German-language films was charming enough to make me want to see them complete.

The symposium portion of the day also included a popular favorite lecture by Michael Miller, who has assembled a collection of familiar operetta melodies (or in some cases, operatic tunes and themes from films), which he presents in comparison with older musical examples of noted similarity, and raising the question of whether it is plagiarism, coincidence, or something else. Though some of the examples are very surprising (a passage of Richard Rodgers’ “Do-Re-Mi” can be found, almost identically, in the overture to Tannhäuser), the spirit of the inquiry is light and amusing.

Before the afternoon show, Daniel Hirschel anticipated the Offenbach performance with a lecture about the cafés-concerts of Paris and their role in creating the style and approach that Offenbach developed, both in those one-act miniatures with a very small cast and his later full-length shows.  After dinner, before the evening performance of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, Rexton Bunnett, co-author of London Musical Shows on Record and chairman of the Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust, spoke about Ivor Novello and his most important musical show, which we were about to see.

Offenbach composed his most popular full-length operettas in the 1860s. La Vie Parisienne, produced in 1866, was his first operetta with a modern setting rather than parodying French culture through an overlay of classical legend. The libretto, by Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is all but plotless, though filled with crazy behavior on the part of almost everyone in the cast. It suggests that Paris is a city to which people throng from faraway places (in this case, Sweden and Brazil) to experience in full the pleasures of food and drink and, especially, amour. (The librettists who came up with this innocent jape were also responsible for Carmen , though they also happily wrote regularly for Offenbach.)

Offenbach originally wrote it in five acts, later shortening it to four, the version presented here in the translation of Richard Traubner. The designs (by Daniel Hobbs, sets, Stefanie Genda, costumes, and Daniel Huston, lighting) lent a luscious pastel feeling to the entire city, especially in distance views of the first and last acts. The costumes were appropriately of the 19th century, but often deliciously overwrought for comic effect.

Julie Wright Costa’s direction did not worry about the lack of much plot; she simply encouraged the cast to be madcap and inventive in rehearsal and took some of the best ideas to make the story—such as there is—lively and amusing. The mashup of so many different people in Act I sets the tone. Two Parisian men—Bobinet (baritone Kyle Yampiro) and Gardefeu (tenor Benjamin Krumreig) are waiting for the arrival on a train for Metélla, the most sought-after demi-mondaine in Paris (Gretchen Windt), whom both men have been pursuing. The other passengers include a Swedish baron (Ted Christopher), who is especially eager to investigate the fleshpots of Paris, and his wife (Meagan Sill), who seems open to a romantic adventure herself. A rich Brazilian (Clark Sturdevant) sings a lickety-split patter song that has always in my experience proved incomprehensible in either French or English, but it establishes him as an extremely rich playboy eager to spend all his money in Paris (and it is one of Offenbach’s best-known tunes).

Gardefeu offers his services as guide to the Swedish couple, even taking them to his home, which he declares is the Grand Hotel and installing them in separate bedrooms, in service of his hoped-for assignation with the Baroness. The Baron expects a table d’hote in this strange hotel, but more than that, he too is seeking an assignation with Metélla, who gives the Baron an ambiguous reply. Gardefeu persuades his servants and the shoemaker Frick (Spencer Reese) and the glovemaker with whom he is in love, Gabrielle (Tanya Roberts) to pretend to be hotel guests. Frick comes as an absurd major-domo in military uniform (his comic song of self-introduction allows him to strut grandly), while Gabrielle shows up in black as the widow of a general, whose demise she laments extravagantly.

The third act takes place the next evening at Bobinet’s aunt’s house, where a great dinner has been promised to the Baron. Here, too, the host asks his servants to play the part of high society guests, replacing their simple livery with elaborate gowns.

All this shifting of social position leads to some of the funniest moments—sight gags—in the show. One of the funniest moments of the Act III party is the appearance, one by one, of Bobinet’s four maids, who—as the director Costa reminded them—had never worn a long gown or high heels before. She asked each to come up with an appropriate entrance under the circumstance. Katharine Nunn arrived, somewhat wobbly at the top of the stars, looked down at the descent, and calmly turned around and climbed down on her hands and knees as if she were descending a ladder!  More shifts of persona: Bobinet appears as a Swiss admiral (despite the fact that Switzerland has no coastline or navy); his “wife”—one of the servants, Pauline (Hilary Koolhoven) attracts the Baron’s attention in a sweetly seductive duet.. The plan is to get the Baron drunk so that Gardefeu can lay romantic siege to his wife. The banquet is deliciously droll Once the Baron is suitably sloshed, the “aristocratic” guests show their real selves in a lively cancan.

The fourth act brings the splendid banquet promised by the Brazilian The Baron arrives, intending to have a private meeting with Metélla, but she arrives with a masked lady who turns out to be the Baroness—saved from Gardefeu’s plot. All ends well—or, at least, with operettaish appropriateness when the Baron and Baroness reconcile and Metélla accepts both Bobinet and Gardefeu. The entire cast joyously celebrates the fact that Paris is clearly the place for life!

Conductor Wilson Southerland (who also served as keyboard accompanist in all of the salon-style concerts during the week) led a zippy show, full of energy and drive, that was carried both by orchestra and singers.

La Vie Parisienne  (Matt Dilyard photo)

La Vie Parisienne (Matt Dilyard photo)

* * *

Before the evening performance, Rexton Burnett lectured on Ivor Novello, composer of the evening’s show, The Dancing Years. Novello’s reputation is far better known in England (as is the show, which was produced there in 1939, but which has had only a single fully-staged production in the United States, in 1947. Novello’s fame began when, at the age of 21, he composed a song that became an anthem for soldiers in World War I, “Keep the home fires burning.” He acted with considerable success both in films and on the stage. In 1927 he starred in two silent films by Alfred Hitchcock, the year after he had appeared as the title character in Molnar’s Liliom (which, of course, was later turned into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel). In Hollywood, where he worked for a time, he wrote the screenplay for Tarzan of the Apes, including the now immortal lines “Me Tarzan, you Jane” (which did not appear in the original book). He wrote and acted in both straight plays and musicals, Christopher Hassall was his regular lyricist. He enjoyed substantial successes in the musical from the ‘30s until his sudden death (from a coronary thrombosis) at the age of 58, just hours after completing a performance in his most recent show, King’s Rhapsody. We saw an excerpt of the newsreel reporting his 1951 funeral, with hordes of fans lining the streets up to and around the cemetery where he was interred, not unlike a state funeral for royalty, so great was his popularity.

Since 1954 the British Academy of Composers, Authors, and Publishers has awarded the Ivor Novello Prize for outstanding British songwriters and composers. Most Americans who have any recollection of his name may remember him as a characters in Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park, in which Jeremy Northam played Novello as a guest at a house party who sings to entertain the guests. (Buxton commented in his lecture that Novello’s wealth and popularity put him in a social position in which he would never have had to sing for his supper.)

The Dancing Years is not so much an operetta (with everyone singing and dancing during much of the show) but rather a bittersweet melodrama with songs largely sung by a few of the principals. There are larger numbers—sung by groups of soldiers and their feminine admirers, as well as an excerpt from the operetta composed by the leading character, but most of the musical numbers are more “private” songs. Moreover, the story, which takes place in Austria, progresses from 1911 to 1938, the year Austria was taken over by Nazi Germany in the Anschluss that made it part of the Third Reich, which naturally creates a darker mood than one expects in most operettas.

To suggest the 27-year time difference between first and last scenes, director Steven Daigle distinguishes physically between “now” and “then” with a scrim that comes down on several occasions (including the very beginning of the show). At such times actors in front of the scrim are in 1938, those behind it in some earlier time. A prologue in front of the scrim—silent and wordless—sets the terminal date, with a pedestrian strolling in one direction across the stage; A policeman passes him in the other direction without a word. But after a few seconds the audience notices that the officer is wearing a red armband with a black swastika on it. After this subtle adumbration of 1938, the curtain rises on a garden scene at an inn outside Vienna in 1911. But the memory of the Nazi armband foreshadows serious issues to come.

To make this division between “now” and “then” even more explicit, Daigle double-cast the two principal characters, the operetta composer Rudi Kleber and his great love Maria Ziegler, with younger actors to represent them in the years up to the final scene (Nathan Brian and Sarah Best) while an older couple (Ted Christopher and Julie Wright Costa) sometimes moves through the early scenes as invisible viewers, “recalling” something from their past; they also play the full final scene, in 1938. which takes place in front of the scrim and leads to a touching final visual image that fuses past and present.

The show is played in two acts of which the first and part of the second consists of scenes in 1911. The second act begins in 1914 with a personal crisis, then jumps to scenes in 1927 and the close, in 1938.

Rudi Kleber (Nathan Brian) is, at the beginning, a penniless composer about to be thrown out of the inn where he has been staying. Even his piano has been moved out and sits in the yard, waiting to be picked up by the man to whom the landlady sold it. Her niece is a charming 15-year-old girl, Grete Schone (Emily Hagens), who has a crush on Rudi, and who makes him swear that he will not propose to anyone else until she is old enough to have the first refusal.

Desperate to keep his piano, Rudi offers to compose a song on the spot and auction it off to the highest bidder among a group of visiting soldiers and their actress friends. The first bids are low, but Maria Ziegler (Sarah Best), a young star of the theater, arrives with her benefactor Prince Charles Metterling (Samus Haddad). She buys the song for her latest show and even persuades Charles to let Rudi live in a studio in his Vienna palace. She falls madly in love with him, but cannot understand his reluctance to move forward in their relationship, even consulting her old vocal coach (Hannah Kurth) about the matter. Rudi writes an operetta Lorelei for Maria; it proves to be a huge success. Metterling is jealous of Rudi, since he is also involved with Maria. After the successful opening of Lorelei, the Prince catches composer and star in a passionate embrace, and lets Rudi know that he had visited her the night before. Rudi leaves, but hears the two arguing, and returns.

Three years later, Grete has completed studies in England; she returns to Vienna an entrancing young lady. Rudi has never told Maria of his light-hearted promise to Grete, and she becomes jealous of the girl. They have been living together for three years, and she is unhappy with his seeming lack of commitment. Maria’s jealousy induces her to write a letter to Prince Metterling, sending it just before she and Rudi make up. He asks her to go upstairs for a moment while he says goodbye to Grete. But first he has to keep his promise, and propses to her. Maria overhears this, but rushes out before hearing Grete’s refusal. When Rudi looks for her, she has left in haste. The next morning he is able to explain to her what happened, but as he prepares to marry her now, she informs him that she married Charles Metternich that morning to ensure her security.

Thirteen years pass. In 1927 Rudi and Maria meet again. He is an increasingly successful composer; she is involved in the social whirl as a prince’s wife. They are miserable without one another, intensified by Rudi’s realization that Maria’s young teenage son, who is with her, is his own child. The final scene—in front of the scrim—has the older Rudi being interrogated by the Nazified police without explanation. As his interrogation moves closer to torture, Maria talks her way into the prison; as the wife of a prince, she still has some influence in the new Austria, and she persuades the officer to let Rudi go. The two of them part, separately, but as they look back at one another and freeze, the light goes up behind the scrim to reveal a scene with the young lovers and the soldiers and their actress friends from the 1911 incident that brought them together, as the music swells to close.

There were many moist eyes in the house at the end of the show. The story is sentimental, to be sure, and the series of misunderstandings that separate the lovers through Maria’s overhasty marriage may seem unlikely, but the fact is that it works with Novello’s romantically tinged songs, especially when sung and acted as well as here.

Most of the major songs are presented as something Rudi has written for Maria—”Waltz of my heart” (the song he composed to auction off in the first scene), “I can give you the starlight,” and “My dearest dear.” The first two are waltzes, which helps set the period time-frame and the operetta mood. Sarah Best sang these with warm intensity in her most serious role of this season. Nathan Brian matched her dramatic energy though he had relatively little to sing. Emily Hagens was charming as the young Grete; her one solo, “Primrose,” which captured her youth and charm (even as the older teen that she was upon returning from her studies).

Fairly extended excerpts of Rudi’s operetta Lorelei fill part of the show, including songs sung by one of its stars, Ceruti (Benjamin Krumreig), especially “My love belongs to you,” and there are two “masques of Vienna” and a folklike scene in Tyrol to add additional color.

Conductor Steven Byess moved the story from fairy-tale operetta  to a more passionate “real life” mise en scene effectively. The choreography by Spencer Reese also distinguished between performance in the onstage operetta and off stage. Ken Martin’s set,  Charlene Gross’s costumes, and the lighting by Brittany Shemuga all made a great case for the Novello revival . Maybe it should not surprise us that a musical show still much loved in England should have had so few productions in the United States. Certainly the enthusiastic audience on August 4 (and, reportedly, others throughout the season) found it  captivating and touching.

Our Dancing Girls  (Matt Dilyard photo)

The Dancing Years (Matt Dilyard photo)

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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