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Operetta Goes Urtext

Operetta is Alive and Well - Thanks to Pioneering New Stage Productions and Reliable Editions

Scholarship has taken an amazingly long time to reach the operetta. Inspired by the energy of such conductors as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Marc Minkowski, and such stage directors as Herbert Wernicke and Jürgen Flimm, the time has now come to present the great masterpieces of operetta in impeccable scholarly-critical editions as an incentive and foundation for new readings on the stage. Here is an annotated survey of the new operetta editions from Alkor.

French Classics

For La Belle Hélène (1863) Jacques Offenbach managed to enlist the services of Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, thereby launching what is perhaps the most brilliant team of collaborators in the history of French theater, whether spoken or musical. The premiere of this operetta (Offenbach himself called it an "opéra bouffe") took place on 17 December 1864 and caused a scandal — at least among the critics in the theater. But audiences were enthralled by its lilting melodies and acid jibes at the political and social mores of the Second Empire, giving this ingenious piece a matchless popularity that remains unabated to the present day. The new scholarly-critical volume, by Robert Didion, is the first edition of a major Offenbach operetta to be based on original sources. It draws on the composer's autograph score. The painstaking editorial work has produced a version of La Belle Hélène radically different from what has been known to date. For the first time it is now possible to perform the orchestral writing as Offenbach composed it. The state concession to operate his theater allowed Offenbach to use only twenty-four musicians in the orchestra pit. Despite this restriction, he wrote a lean, diaphanous score of a scintillating beauty that beggars comparison. The most striking departures involve the middle of Act II. Even before the premiere, the entire first section of the so-called "Snakes and Ladders" scene, in which the Priest Calchas is revealed to be a cheater, had to be cut on order from the censors. Also cut was an elegiac lullaby that Prince Paris was not allowed to sing alongside the sleeping (and hence "defenseless") Helen. Only with the reinsertion of these two complete numbers is the original musical balance restored to the second act. The ending, too, appears in a completely new light. The last-act finale exists in three conflicting versions (this edition is the first to present all three). Only one of them ends with the off-color dénouement heard at the premiere, in which the swindled Greeks cheerfully bid farewell to Helen and Paris. Now two musically different versions, in which the Greeks declare war on the Trojans (as in Homer), are presented as dramaturgical alternatives. The premiere of the new La Belle Hélène took place at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet, under the baton of Marc Minkowski, on 29 September 2000. Since then the virtues of the new edition may be heard on CD and DVD.

As always with Offenbach, the plot of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein abounds in political allusion and social critique. The authorial team that had proved its mettle in La Belle Hélène now reveal war to be nothing but a parlor game to ward off the grand-duchess's boredom and to satisfy personal cravings for power. The circumstances of the premiere, on 12 April 1867, were more than propitious: no fewer than fifty-seven crowned heads and statesmen from 32 countries had arrived in Paris to witness the Second World Exhibition. Now these very same people — the butts of Offenbach's jibes and mockery — thronged to the Théâtre des Variétés on Napoléon III's example and attended the performances en masse. The enthusiasm for La Grande-Duchesse eclipsed everything else — only to come to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Yet the operetta is more than a historical prank at the expense of the military: the recent productions under Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Styriarte Festival in Graz (2003) and the Zurich Opera (2004), both using Michael Rot's new critical edition, prove that it has lost none of its topical relevance. For Offenbach, a premiere did not mean that the piece was finished. In the case of La Grande-Duchesse he paid heed to the response of the first-night audience and made still more changes to the score: the lengthy second-act finale — already the object of Halévy's complaints — was summarily dropped and replaced by a lively reprise of the preceding number.

The critical edition combines the revised version of the premiere and the final version, which Offenbach sanctioned by supervising its publication. The first German production of the new Grande-Duchesse, with a fresh translation by Offenbach specialist Josef Heinzelmann, took place at Koblenz City Theater on 15 January 2005.

The Golden Viennese Operetta

Strauss's second operetta, Carnival in Rome (1873), proved a rousing success. It tells the tale of the painter Arthur Bryk, who paints and falls in love with a girl named Marie while passing through the Swiss Alps. He continues on his journey to Rome secretly followed by Marie, disguised as a boy. She becomes his most gifted disciple and finally, after much confusion during the merry Carnival festivities, his lover and future wife. Even during the rehearsals Strauss made changes to almost every number in the score. The original version, which has never been played to the present day, has been largely reconstructed for the New Johann Strauss Complete Edition. The second version, heard at the premiere, differs from the first mainly in its massive cuts, including the famous ballet music still heard today in concert performance. Strauss's unjustly neglected Carnival in Rome, with its artfully constructed arias, ensembles, and choruses, almost verges on comic opera. The Dresden State Operetta gave the work its first hearing in the new scholarly-critical edition on 29 October 2004.

Die Fledermaus is the only Strauss operetta that has never been reworked, apart from a version prepared by Max Reinhardt and Erich Wolfgang Korngold for a Berlin revue. The composer planned to adapt the music to suit weightier operatic voices for a staging scheduled at the Vienna Court Opera in 1896. The performance never materialized, but a lower version of Rosalinde's Czárdás, written for the popular mezzo-soprano Marie Renard but never sung, is published for the first time in the appendix of this scholarly-critical edition. This valuable addition to the repertory of promenade concerts is also available separately. On the other hand, Strauss's original music for the second-act ballet is integrated in the main body of the volume. Here four national dances — from Spain, Scotland, Russia, and Bohemia — are followed by a "Hungarian" coda motivically linked to Rosalinde's Czárdás. This should put an end once and for all to the "well-intentioned" tradition of inserting favorite dance or vocal numbers (usually the Blue Danube or Voices of Spring waltzes) at this spot — or even music by other composers in a foreign style. Thanks to newly discovered source material, many mistakes have been rectified in dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and tempo indications and corrections to the vocal parts and instrumentation have been made. The volume also contains essays on the work's origins and historical reception, a complete critical apparatus from the editor, and the original libretto submitted to the censors, which is reproduced alongside the publishers' printed version.

Following the successful Vienna premiere of his operetta Der lustige Krieg ("The Merry War," 1881), Strauss set out to find a new libretto. Once again he approached the authors Friedrich Zell and Richard Genée, who gave him two subjects to choose from: Der Bettelstudent and Venezianische Nächte. Why Strauss chose the far weaker second book has never been explained. Despite its far from ideal text, Eine Nacht in Venedig ("A Night in Venice"), as the operetta was eventually titled, has gone down in music history as the musical encomium to Venice par excellence. It was an eventuality that Strauss could not have foreseen at the time, for the Berlin premiere on 3 October 1883 was not particularly successful. The decisive breakthrough came six days later at the first Viennese performance. In the intervening week Strauss and his librettists had made substantial changes to the words and music. But even after the highly successful Vienna premiere he returned to his desk once more and added a waltz reminiscence to replace a march at the end of the second finale. Only the version heard at the Vienna premiere found its way into the published full score; the original Berlin version sank into oblivion. In the decades that followed, weaknesses in the book of A Night in Venice led to many nonauthorial arrangements, of which the one by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Vienna, 1923), with a "thickened" reorchestration completely antithetical to Strauss's diaphanous original, has remained predominant to the present day. The juxtaposition of the complete Berlin and Vienna versions in a single volume makes it possible to reverse some of the changes that Strauss, from today's standpoint, made too hastily.

Today Der Zigeunerbaron ("The Gypsy Baron"), with its intoxicating melodies that deftly blend luscious Viennese waltzes and Hungarian folk music, is one of the "Waltz King's" best-known and most popular works for the stage. Nonetheless, readers will discover a great deal of new music in our volume for the Vienna Strauss Edition. All in all, The Gypsy Baron exists in three different versions. The (unperformed) original version is handed down virtually intact in the autograph score. For the premiere on 24 October 1885 Strauss wrote, for the second finale, the couplet "Mir helfen die Doktoren nicht," in which the wily pig-farmer Kálman Zsupán attempts to escape induction into the army. For whatever reason, this highly effective comic number was dropped at the time. It was replaced by Homonay's recruiting song, also originally part of the through-composed, operatic second finale. It was then extracted for the first version and placed in front of the finale as a separate number. In Strauss's second version the already abridged second finale, rather than ending with the expansive Viennese waltz "So voll Fröhlichkeit," comes to a thoroughly effective conclusion with the raucous Hungarian Rkczy March.

As in all other publications in the Vienna Strauss Edition, this one too contains all versions completely reconstructed in a single volume. Not only the full scores but also the accompanying orchestral material and vocal scores are organized so that the desired version can be performed anywhere in the piece without loss of rehearsal time. Every volume contains a preface discussing the work's genesis and notes on its performance, followed by the revised musical text, a detailed critical apparatus, and the complete libretto, again usually in several authorized versions. All the vocal and orchestral numbers are also available separately for concert performance.

Carl Millöcker's Der Bettelstudent ("The Beggar Student"), the work whose libretto Strauss allegedly rejected in favor of A Night in Venice, has maintained its presence alongside the works of von Suppé and Strauss among the greatest hits of German-language operetta, with almost 5,000 productions to date. Thilo Winter and Martin Lichtfuss's critical edition of 1996 is based on the autograph score. The editors' goal was to present the musical text in its original form, without unsanctioned editorial accretions. Further, several numbers thoroughly deserving of being tried out on the boards appear in print for the first time. For example, Millöcker originally wrote two different couplets for Colonel Ollendorf in the third act. The first version, "Im Kampfe einst mit den Tscherkessen" (no. 13), was completed a week before the premiere. The second version (no. 13a), the only one known today (it has entered German folk vernacular with its refrain "Schwamm drüber!" or "Let bygones be bygones!"), was composed three weeks later. Apparently both couplets were sung at different spots of the operetta in the nineteenth century. The two final numbers of Der Bettelstudent also exist in conflicting versions. Besides the familiar, very brief final version, this edition is the first to make available the original version, which could only be reconstructed by comparing a very wide range of sources. The makeshift finale formed the basis of all subsequent editions of this music. The editors were especially concerned to publish the two versions one after the other, thereby allowing theaters to choose between them. In 1884, for a French-language production in Brussels, Millöcker composed an additional romance for Simon ("La main mignonne") and a couplet for Countess Palmatica ("O mes Aïeux écoutes"). Both have now been translated into German by Julia Winter for performances in Germany. The latter number in particular can be easily inserted into Act III, considerably enlivening the otherwise slightly bland alto part of the Countess. Moreover, the edition contains an exhilarating medley overture that Millöcker wrote for the 300th performance in Berlin. Other items written for Berlin include two mazurkas of 1894 which hopefully will eventually replace the mazurkas from Léo Delibe's Coppélia that have long been used as an interpolated ballet.

Heiko Cullmann
translated by J. Bradford Robinson

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