Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Jesus Christ Superstar
I saw a live performance of A.L. Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Sydney back in the '70s. Many church people were critical of it at the time but I thought then, as I still do, that any promulgation of the Gospel message was valuable. It is a great message of hope and kindness. I no longer share the hope but perhaps some of the kindness has stuck.
So when I recently saw in Target a DVD of the show for $5, I thought it a good purchase. It is the Universal Pictures movie version from the year 2000.
And I can see nothing wrong with the story in the show either theologically or exegetically. There are even correct quotations from the scriptures at crucial points. The main emphasis of the show is on the passion, the times immediately leading up to his execution. And the mental agonies that he is portrayed as undergoing at that time are perfectly scriptural, though much enlarged on. Read Matthew chapter 26 if you doubt it. My old Bible opened at that spot very easily when I went to check it.
So I think Webber has done the world a service in introducing the Gospel story to a "rock" audience. He must have reached many that the churches did not.
The casting: Political correctness was already alive and well in the year 2000 so the cast included a lot of blacks. Maybe there were a lot of Ethiopians in the Jerusalem of Jesus' time that we have not heard about. There are certainly a lot there now.
But the times seem to get ever more sensitive so I imagine that if the movie were a current release it might get some flack over its casting of a black as Caiaphas. According to the Gospel accounts, Caiaphas was the major antagonist of Jesus. He was the villain of the piece, in short.
And the casting of Jesus was unrealistic too. He was cast as a tall, well-built man with flowing and curly red hair. In life he would have been a short, stocky man with black hair, dark eyes and swarthy skin, as most Middle-Easterners are to this day. But the casting was pretty close to traditional depictions of Jesus. It was rather odd that he was the only one wearing a nightgown, though.
I must confess that I found the casting of a light-skinned "black" woman (Renee Castle) as Mary Magdalene rather jarring. I can take only so much anachronism. And her rendition of "I don't know how to love him" amazed me by its poverty. She had a very weak and girlish voice. I would have liked to hear that aria from a soaring operatic mezzo. Helen Reddy did it pretty well, though.
Saturday, April 11, 2015
I am inclined to make a few comments about the translation of Die lustige Witwe. The usual translation is "The merry widow" and I suppose that is close enough but "gay" or "pleasure-seeking" would approximate it too. "Lustig" is not "lusty", however. It is about having a good or entertaining time.
I was delighted recently to receive a DVD of the operetta by Lehar of that name which featured Dagmar Schellenberger as the leading lady. After her performance as Mariza at Moerbisch I expected some brilliant singing and acting and I was not disappointed.
The performance was from Zuerich in der Schweiz, in the Zurich opera house -- and that made clear to me how Moerbisch spoils us. The high tech facilities at Moerbisch enable lots of very sharp and very close close-ups -- rather like in a Hollywood musical. So facial expressions can be seen in great detail. The technicians at Zurich were no slouch but broadcasting from an ordinary opera house did limit them, with the lighting apparently being the main culprit.
So the brilliant expressions that Schellenberger is known for were at their clearest only when she was under bright light. Lighting varies in opera houses so clarity was on other occasions reduced. There was not the constant clarity to be found at Moerbisch. What was particularly missing was Schellenberger's eyes. She has the most expressive eyes and one could not always see them at critical junctures. We saw enough of her, however, to marvel yet again at how well her face mirrored what was going on. She has the most amazing range of expressions -- and all used appropriately to the story. I liked it when she answered her difficult man with just one glance of her eyes.
And it's not only facial expressions. Her gestures and body language are eloquent too. Her body language when she was urging the dummer Reitersmann to claim her was a legend-quality example of non-verbally saying "take me".
And the very different role did call forth from Schellenberger a new lot of expressions. This time she brilliantly conveyed disgust, pique and coquettishness -- among much else. Her singing was as good as ever but the role did not really stretch her -- though she did belt out a few high notes for fun on occasions.
But it was a fun operetta and I will be watching it repeatedly. It gains with each successive viewing of course. The local patrons at the Teatro alla scala in Milano know that. They normally know well the opera put on there but keep going along to absorb more of it.
I initially thought that Schellenberger looked younger than she was at Moerbisch but, on checking, I found that both performances were in 2004! It shows how much difference hair, makeup and clothes can make. And her role was quite different too. At Moerbisch she was the haughty lady who fell in love against her better judgement whereas at Zurich she was the pretty and clever little lady who was determined to get her man. And, this being operetta, she did, of course. The man didn't have a hope. Whether she IS the ultimate female or not, she certainly plays one with great conviction.
The Swiss were a bit more daring in the costume department too. Both Schellenberger and Ute Gfrerer showed noticeable cleavage, particularly so in the case of Gfrerer. Gfrerer was the second lead, playing Valencienne, the attractive young singer married to a rich older man.
Gfrerer seems to be a rather jolly lady in general but her part in this show was almost wholly serious. She was even asked, rather absurdly for her, to be Eine anstaendige Frau (a respectable wife). I was inclined to think that her notable bosom was what got her the part and that may have been so. It did suit the role. But she is also much acclaimed as a singer and actress. There is a bio of her here.
Her natural talent for gaiety did however surface in the dancing. She was in any dancing going, whether the part really called for it or not. She even led the cabaret dancers towards the end of the show. With big smiles and shrieks, her happiness throughout the dancing was a joy to watch. She even got herself tipped upside down in that last segment! She is a naturally happy lady, I think. And being born both beautiful and talented why should she not be happy?
Schellenberger with the ambassador
Schellenberger with her "difficult" man
In fact Zurich got top talent all round. Even the conductor has a distinguished record. He was Franz Welser-Moest and when I saw him I thought he was rather young as conductors go -- but I was mistaken. He was in fact 44 at the time. A lot of German men are ageless for a long time and he is obviously one of those. Something to do with the climate, maybe. I was at a conference at Oxford once when I saw a New York lady mistake a good-looking German man as being about 30. He was closer to 50.
The music was of course good so it seems a pity that none of the arias seem to be much used outside the context of the operetta itself. Some of the tunes might even reasonably be described as catchy. Vilja gets a very occasional airing as a concert piece by itself but even on YouTube most of the renditions are extracted from stage performances of the operetta.
The inescapable Andre Rieu has of course grabbed it for his shows and in fact done rather well with it. He has up a very sweet rendition by a slightly built black South African soprano named Kimmy Skota. She does not of course have a fraction of Schellenberger's facial expressions but the singing is as good as any. I find it hard to evaluate Schellenberger's performance of the aria as just singing. I can't isolate the singing from the brilliant way she plays the part as a whole.
The stars of the show were undoubtedly the two ladies above but Njegus the majordomo was a great comic touch too. And Rudolf Hartmann made a great comic figure out of Baron Zeta.
And I must of course say something about the big and mellifluous American baritone, Rodney Gilfry, who has learnt enough Hoch Deutsch to play Graf Danilo well. His rugged good looks do make him credible in the part as much admired by women but he is quite powerless against the the German ultra feminine Schellenberger. Schellenberger has been described as "Prussian energy plus feminine charm" -- and there is a lot to that. A real-life man could not withstand her for 5 minutes.
And the two little voiceless sobs she does in the humming song are immensely evocative, though I do think they are a bit of a trademark for her. She is one clever lady.
A small language note: The honorific Russian form of address "Gospodin"/"Gospodina" is used on occasions in the show -- presumably to identify the mythical country in which the show is set as Slavic (clearly modelled on Montenegro). It means "Your honour" or "Gracious lady" or something along those lines. It is perhaps a bit less empty than the German expression "Gnaedige Frau" (which is also used).
Speaking of expressions, it is mildly interesting that women in German lands rarely refer to their husband as a husband. They refer to him as "mein Mann" (my man). There is a German word for husband (Ehemann) but it seems to be little used. And Frau (woman) is also used to mean "wife".
Another language note: As the anstaendige Frau is a recurrent theme, I thought I should elaborate a little on the meaning of anstaendig. It is reasonably translated as "respectable" but it is also often translated as "decent". It is a claim about her good character as well as a claim about her good reputation. On one occasion she describes herself in French as a femme d' honneur and I think that best captures what is intended for the part. It means a "woman of honor". Interesting that the old Latin word honor is still used in both English and French with the same, original meaning. I am mildly regretful that the Old English word mensk has been completely supplanted by it.
I was a bit peeved that the French used in the show was subtitled but not translated. I haven't spent one minute studying French. But, fortunately, my general knowledge of European languages enabled me to get most of it.
The words of all the songs in the show are here -- in German AND English
Finally, is there a political message in the operetta? Patriotism is rather clearly held up to ridicule in it but is Lehar ridiculing Austro/Hungarian patriotism, the patriotism of small countries or ridiculing patriotism generally? I will have to read further on that, I think. He was not himself Jewish but his wife was and he associated a lot with Jews so that may have made him skeptical of the patriotic sentiments of the time. On the other hand he spent a lot of his early life in the armed forces, which usually encourages patriotism. On balance, I am inclined to suspect that he saw Austro/Hungarian patriotism as excessive. His near contemporary in England, W.S. Gilbert (in the Gilbert & Sullivan light operas) was certainly no respecter of the establishment.
Saturday, April 4, 2015
Kalman's Graefin Mariza at Moerbisch in 2004
A few more notes about the 2004 performance at Moerbisch of Kalman's Graefin Mariza. I have already written a bit about it but I think I should add a few things that might, via the magic of Google, be helpful to people looking for more information about it. There is very little available in English about it online so far.
I think I have watched the show every night since I got the DVD some weeks ago. It is to me great entertainment and also a perfect work of art. I even still laugh at jokes that I have heard around 30 times already! The combination of Kalman's music and the no-expenses-spared staging at Moerbisch is hard to beat. I love the Moerbisch steam train.
And, in the usual way for operettas, the show is exceedingly romantic. Love is its theme. So why the Devil do I enjoy it? I see myself as one of the world's least romantic persons. But as the ancient Greeks used to say, "It's a wise man who knows himself" and the fact that I have been married four times may be some evidence of that. And I still think that I married four very fine ladies.
You can view the whole Moerbisch performance of Graefin Maritza online here. But if you want English subtitles you will have to buy the DVD. The words are of course in German, but the music is international.
The producers of the show never resolved the conflict between representing the period of the show as either the 1920s when it was written or the late 19th century in which it is set. There were also a few references to modern times, but mainly for humorous effect. I was rather pleased that a passing reference to the EU got a big laugh. It is a bureaucratic monster that needs to be laughed at.
The story is that an Austro-Hungarian lady (Mariza) is plagued by so many suitors that she retreats to her estate in Hungary on the pretence that she is going to get married there. She has however an elderly suitor who follows her to her estate. Her estate manager (Herr Toerek) is in fact an impoverished aristocrat and she (of course!) falls in love with him. But then there is a big misunderstanding that has to be resolved.
The second-string story involves involves a rich Yugoslav estate owner, Baron Zsupan, and the sister of "Herr Toerek". She wants him but he initially thinks he wants Mariza. When he finally realizes that he really wants the sister he has the devil of a job getting her back.
Moerbisch is such a prestigious venue in the world of operetta that the organizers must have had just about untrammeled choice among all the many singers of the German lands. Germans did terrible things to themselves (and others) in two world wars but artistic talent still abounds there. So the directors at Moerbisch could demand performers who were both brilliant singers and great actors -- and pretty good dancers too. And in 2004 they got all that.
And Dagmar Schellenberger as Mariza was the first among greats. Her brilliant acting and rich soprano voice rather mesmerize me. Her acting would be taken as over-acting at Hollywood but it was perfect for operetta, where realism is secondary to a great show. I enjoy her amazingly expressive acting as much as her faultless singing. She has exceptionally expressive eyes. Her facial and bodily expressions are perfect for every moment of the story and convey almost as much as her singing. She does hauteur, anger and ecstasy equally briliantly.
And I loved the comic performance by Marco Kathol as Baron Zsupan almost as much. He is a very good tenor who, unusually, was also a ballet dancer for some years. And his dancing background shows. His moves are so fleet and flexible that they are a wonder to watch. He must have been a pretty good ballet dancer too. He is a pleasure to watch.
And he is obviously still very strong and fit. He picks up Schellenberger as easily as if she were one of the wispy little ladies of ballet. And Schellenberger looks to be a fine figure of a woman, almost a "big bizzem", as they say in Scotland. When the character Penizek later in the show checks out her "architecture" he had reason to be pleased with what he saw. For most of the show she wears heavily "glammed up" clothes that rather disguise her body but when she gets into her milkmaid Tracht towards the end of the show she looks very good indeed.
In another operetta, Die lustige Witwe, we find the meaning of "architecture" spelled out a little more -- as a good mezzanine and a good balcony. I think we get the drift.
All of the singers in the show performed their roles very well but it is Schellenberger and Kathol who cause me to watch it again and again. After watching the show many times I now laugh the minute I see Kathol roll onto the stage on his railway handcar.
The best song of the show is undoubtedly the Varazdin song. It is very catchy. But until you try to sing it you don't realize that it is a tongue-twister too. Kathol and Schellenberger to well to gallop energetically through it. When I try to sing along I can't do it. I always stumble over Gulaschsaft (goulash juice). The words are below:
Komm mit nach Varazdin! So lange noch die Rosen blüh'n,
Dort woll'n wir glücklich sein, wir beide ganz allein!
Du bist die schönste Fee, von Debrecen bis Plattensee,
Drum möcht mit dir ich hin nach Varazdin!
Denn meine Leidenschaft, brennt heisser noch als Gulaschsaft
Und in der Brust tanzt Herz mir Czardas her und hin!
Komm mit nach Varazdin, so lange noch die Rosen blüh'n,
Dort ist die ganze Welt noch rot, weiss, grün!
The "rot, weiss, grün" (red white and green) refers to the colours of the Hungarian flag. The operetta is set in a grand Hungarian estate.
The male lead in the show has some good arias, with "Komm Zigan" being particularly dramatic, but none of them stuck with me the way the Varazdin song did.
Go to the 48 minute mark on the video for the Varazdin song. The words of the whole Varazdin segment are here
The inhabitants of the fine city of Varazdin in Northern Croatia are probably not too keen on the song as it portrays Varasdin as home to 18,000 pigs -- when Varazdin has much grander real claims than that.
It took me a long time to figure out what the luminous blue ball was all about but I think I finally get it. It represents the moon. The gypsy woman "Manja" prophesied that in one lunar cycle Mariza would find love. And when they do acknowledge their love they hand the ball back to Manja. The lunar month is over. And at that point Serafin reappears to mark the end of the month.
And if you know a bit of history some strange things happen. When Mariza asks Herr Toerek, "Haben Sie einen Frack" he replies affirmatively. But nobody in the show at any time wears a late 19th century Frack. A late 19th century Frack was what was known in English as a frock coat, a long coat that belled out slightly towards the bottom. It was not cutaway. You occasionally see them on gamblers and the like in cowboy movies. In Graefin Mariza formal dress is the more modern Frack of the 1920s, a tailcoat. The producers of the show kept the original words but not the period dress. The subtitle translators rendered Frack as "dress-shirt", which is simply wrong. "Evening clothes" would have been better.
And I should say something about the Puszta. It is mentioned quite a lot both at the beginning and the end of the show. In the subtitles, it is sometimes translated (as "prairie") and sometimes not. As Wikipedia informatively says: "The Hungarian puszta is an exclave of the Eurasian Steppe". It is a large area mostly of grassland with rather infertile soils -- but the interesting part is the people who live there. Wikipedia doesn't tell you about that. It's a hard life there and it breeds a tough people. And it is the women of the Puszta who are idolized in Graefin Mariza. They are seen as particularly lively and attractive -- and, one suspects, rather easily seduced by rich Hungarian men.
Hungary generally is in fact greatly romanticized by Kalman. And not only mainstream Hungarian society but also the Hungarian gypsies are extolled. Gypsy music is in fact to a large degree the focus of the show. But gypsy fortunetelling is treated with respect, as are gypsy dancers. Why was Kalman so enthused by gypsies? It's got to have something to do with the fact that Kalman was a Hungarian Jew (born Imre Koppstein). Antisemitism was already rife in Vienna and elsewhere when Kalman was writing -- Nazism arose in fertile soil -- and it must have freaked him. So was he trying to claim a new identity for himself? Perhaps. He always seems to put some scraps of his native Magyar (Hungarian language) into his show and there were a few small bits in this show -- Jonapot etc.
There is a lot to note about the language in the show. It took me a while to figure out what was going on when the word Zigan was used. When sung, it sounded like Sieger (victor) to me but I eventually figured out that it was just an abbreviation for Zigeuner (gypsy).
And a curiosity about the language was a roughly 50/50 split over where the emphasis should be placed on Mariza. Is it MAHriza or MahRITza? Schellenberger pronounces it the latter way but others do not. So either way is "correct".
There is quite a lot of wordplay in the show but you miss most of it unless you know some German. One thing that struck me as odd was when the majordomo opined that Bela Toerek was named "Bela" because he was good looking -- an allusion to the Italian "bella", meaning beautiful. But Bela is a common Hungarian Christian name and Hungarian is unrelated to other European languages so how could he think that? Apparently there is no agreed meaning for the name "Bela" so he was at liberty to make a romantic speculation about it.
And the split between Northern and Southern German pronunciation is referred to. Northern Germans tend to look down on Southern Germans but Southerners don't give a damn about that. And Fuerstin Cuddenstein, the rich aunt, is portrayed as speaking in a broad Southern way. Like the Swiss, she says "Daitsch" instead of "Deutsch". So she brings her German teacher, a former thespian, with her to "improve" her speech.
The translators do a manful job of turning German into English but the translations are quite "free" (non-literal). I don't underestimate their difficulties, though. German and English were the same language 1500 years ago but a lot has changed since then. And the two languages do to an extent cut up reality in different ways these days. I have made a few notes about that from my days translating the German of Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler into English. A lot of what those two gentlemen said during their lives poses difficulties for the modern political Left so had not been available in translated form online. So it was amusing for me to let the cat out of the bag.
So all that adds up to the fact that you get a lot more out of the show to the extent that you understand German. Translations just cannot do the whole job of conveying the original intention of the text. One instance of that occurs when the Graefin is declaring her intention to stay on her Gut (estate). To deter any opposition to her decision,she adds, "sicher und sicher". That is certainly very emphatic in German and Schellenberger's facial expression says more than words probably could anyway. But sicher literally means firm or secure so you cannot translate it well directly. You have to use a circumlocution. And no circumlocution that I can think of is as emphatic.
And there is in the subtitles what I regard as a major mistranslation. Verwalter is translated as "bailiff", which mostly means an official of a law court these days. The German literally means someone who exercises power on behalf of someone else so a simple "manager" would have been better.
So I hope that my various comments here about things in the show will help to a small degree to make up for any lack of German in those who view it.
Mariza falls for her Verwalter
Harald Serafin, Schellenberger and the purloined letter
Schellenberger in her milkmaid Tracht
On to the politically incorrect bit!
Anne watches a lot more ballet than I do and Russia is of course a ballet powerhouse. You only have to see magical performances such as that by Ekaterina Kondaurova as the Firebird at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersberg to know why. And Anne remarked to me recently that she has never seen a black or Asian face in a ballet performance from Russia. All the faces look like the faces we both grew up amongst. You cannot usually tell one Northern European face from another just by looking at them. A Russian could be an English person for all that looks give away.
And I notice the same in the performances I have seen from Moerbisch. I have not seen them all so maybe there has been some "diversity" there at times. It's actually a bit of a shock to see someone who could be the person next door speaking very foreign-sounding German words.
But perhaps an old guy like me may be permitted to be pleased to be watching faces like those he grew up among.