Lehár: Frasquita. Rupert Bergmann, Laura Scherwitzl, Vincent Schirrmacher, Robert Maszl, Romana Noack, Thomas Zisterer; Chor des Lehár Festivals and Franz-Lehár Orchester conducted by Vinzenz Praxmarer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Anna Nicole. Eva-Maria Westbroek, Susan Bickley, Jeremy White, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Loré Lixenberg, Grant Doyle, Gerald Finley, Andrew Rees, Alan Oke, Peter Hoare; Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Antonio Pappano. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.
“Celebrification” is nothing new; certainly not in the realm of opera. Some composers take real-world celebrities and turn them into the stuff of legend, as Verdi did in La Traviata and as Mark-Anthony Turnage has tried to do in Anna Nicole. Other composers take characters who never existed – but who are immense celebrities within the operatic world itself – and expand upon, reinterpret and rethink them, as Franz Lehár did in reconsidering Bizet’s Carmen through the operetta Frasquita. Gypsy lore and gypsy lives were something of an obsession with Lehár, who felt his Hungarian heritage strongly. In 1910, Zigeunerliebe rather oddly told of “gypsy love” in the context of the taming of a Valkyrie-like heroine. In 1934, in his final work, Giuditta, Lehár reconsidered the Carmen legend and reinterpreted it for a modern age in which the conclusion is not the great drama of murder but the lesser killing of a failed relationship that quietly disintegrates after initial fireworks. In between, in 1922, there was Frasquita, in which the gypsy dancer of the title – clearly identified with Bizet’s heroine, even to the point of working in a cigarette factory and having a fight with another of the “cigarette girls” – performs highly suggestive dances in order to lure and humiliate her suitor, realizing only after his explosive reaction that she loves him after all (setting the stage for a rather contrived happy ending). Frasquita is a Lehár oddity on several levels. Less tuneful than his earlier works, less serious than his later ones, it was the first Lehár operetta with a “Tauber song,” the middle-of-the-second act Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett! But the song was written for Hubert Marischka, not for Richard Tauber, who was to be so influential on Lehár’s later works – Marischka, not Tauber, created the role of Armand, the singer who rather prematurely invites Frasquita to his heavenly blue bed. But Tauber did fill in during the original run of Frasquita, and the song was a huge hit when he sang it, and it was this that eventually led to the Lehár-Tauber collaboration.
Frasquita showcases Lehár’s ability to write in many Spanish forms redolent of Carmen but also reflecting a central-European sensibility. There is a tango here, and a bolero, a valse espagnole, even a habanera. Lehár’s underlying romanticism pervades them all; and the melodies are frequently gorgeous, carrying the audience along on waves of beauty even though the tunes are not as well differentiated as in many of the composer’s other works and are therefore less memorable. As for the thin plot: a libretto was originally prepared for Puccini, Lehár’s colleague and friend, but Puccini eventually decided that the whole subject, leading up to a final consummation of the love between Armand and Frasquita, was too over-the-top. Lehár’s librettists (A.M. Willner and Heinz Reichert) avoided that issue by having the curtain fall before the couple’s union. What they could not get around, though, was the question of how and why Frasquita should captivate audiences – beyond its elements of titillation. Unlike the fiery Carmen, Frasquita is not larger than life, not especially dramatic or intense – not, in short, a major-league heroine for an opera or operetta. This is true even though the Lehár Festival performance of Frasquita is a very fine one, with all the principal roles well filled, the chorus and orchestra performing with strength and exuberance, and Vinzenz Praxmarer leading the production with verve and style. Yet this two-CD set is really a must-have for admirers of Lehár and anyone interested in hearing how this composer’s works developed over time. Infuriatingly, CPO fails to provide a libretto or a link to one online – an absolutely unjustifiable omission, especially since a number of crucial elements of Frasquita occur in dialogue, not in the sung portions. And the plot summary offered in the booklet is a bare-bones one; it would be stretching things to call it adequate. It is enough, though, to show that Frasquita is a pale imitation of the more-famous fictional gypsy on whom she is based. The question that Lehár never quite answers in this work is just why anyone in the audience should particularly care about what happens to her.
The identical question trips up Turnage’s Anna Nicole. If Lehár’s Frasquita is an operetta that occasionally strives for elements of grand opera, Anna Nicole is an opera that might have been more effective as an operetta. The seriousness with which Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas approach their subject is all out of proportion to the importance and meaningfulness (if any) of the life of tabloid fodder Anna Nicole Smith, who died at age 39 in 2007. Smith, a onetime Playboy model who married an octogenarian billionaire, offered little evidence of depth during her life and is portrayed with little enough of it in the handsome and often clever Royal Opera production. The music and libretto do not always fit easily together, with the story line moving along in traditional TV “docudrama” form while Turnage’s music, filled with jazz elements, now evokes the work of Bernstein, now dips into honkytonk, now makes a pass at a waltz (which certainly sounds nothing like any waltz by Lehár). Turnage and Thomas would actually have done well to steal a page from Lehár by having Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and her lawyer and occasional lover, Howard K. Stern (Gerald Finley), explain – separately and/or together – the basis of their relationship, which is the most interesting part of the opera. But no such aria or duet is ever forthcoming. Even if it had been unconvincing (as Lehár’s explanatory ones sometimes were), this “what it’s all about” aria/duet would have grounded the story, giving audiences something to hold onto beyond the glitz and glamor of the production’s visual attractions. Without this central element – or any other one – there is nothing but glitz to hang onto here. Sometimes, in fact, the presentation works well, as at the very beginning, when the chorus energetically sings a moralizing summary of Anna Nicole’s life that is set to lively, syncopated music and has some genuinely funny lines. Indeed, the first half of Anna Nicole is more effective than the second, in which Turnage and Thomas strive for drama and pathos but run head-on into the reality that there is not enough worth caring about in Anna Nicole’s life to provide the foundation for a La Traviata-style “isn’t it sad?” conclusion. No one writes operetta anymore, which is really a shame, because the Anna Nicole story would potentially have worked quite well if done in the form of one of Lehár’s later, unhappy-ending operettas, which conclude with pathos rather than tragedy. Anna Nicole might also be effective as a Broadway or West End musical, musicals being the operettas of the present day. But there just isn’t enough emotional depth to Anna Nicole, or to Anna Nicole, for this work to succeed as grand opera. Nevertheless, this flawed but very well performed work is as much a must-have in its way as Frasquita is for other reasons. It is hard to escape the notion that Anna Nicole may represent the future of opera – a future in which celebrities and popular, well-known topics are given superficial treatment with eclectic music that is, by and large, easy to listen to and well constructed. In retrospect, it is easy to see how Frasquita looks back on its composer’s past as well as ahead to his future. It is also just possible that Anna Nicole will turn out to provide both a window into past opera and a view toward where the form may go in the future.