February 09, 2017
(++++) OPERETTA BYWAYS
Romberg: The Student Prince. Dominik Wortig, Anja Petersen, Frank Blees, Arantza Ezenarro, Vincent Schirrmacher, Wieland Satter, Joan Ribalta, Theresa Nelles, Christian Sturm; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Funkhausorchester Köln conducted by John Mauceri. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 16. Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.
The eventual metamorphosis of operetta into modern musical theater is more evident in retrospect than it was while it was occurring. But every once in a while, a look back at specific works designed as operettas provides an especially clear hint of the evolution of one form into the other. Take Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince as an example. On the one hand, it falls, from its title onwards, squarely into the operetta genre, alongside other fish-out-of-water works such as Kálmán’s Die Csárdásfürstin, Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent, and – particularly directly in plot, if not in parallelism of title – Lehár’s Der Zarewitsch of 1927, which, however, Romberg’s work anticipates by more than two years. On the other hand, The Student Prince was constructed and performed explicitly as a Broadway show, created at the behest of Broadway’s famed Shubert brothers, and was not only Romberg’s most successful work but also the longest-running Broadway production of the 1920s: Show Boat (1927), sometimes erroneously stated to have attained that honor, ran for 572 performances, but The Student Prince ran for 608. The new CPO recording, nicely sung in English by a mostly German (and operetta-steeped) cast, and conducted with considerable assurance by Yale-trained John Mauceri, shows a work quite clearly straddling the operetta and Broadway-show genres, filled with an unending flow of lovely (if sometimes treacly) melodies, and carrying within itself the seeds of its own forgettability. Again, this is only in retrospect: what made The Student Prince so popular in the years right after World War I was its combination of nostalgia and heartbreak, its portrayal of a forever-shattered, royalty-ruled world whose denizens experience the sort of emotional anguish to which “commoners” could readily relate. Like the later works of Lehár and, in particular, Der Zarewitsch, this Romberg work is one in which the demands of leadership, of aristocratic rule, must overcome the desires of one’s heart; it is a story in which the course of true love never does run smooth – and, indeed, must be reduced in the end only to memories of a time gone by and, like the elegant society in which the work is set, never to come again. Romberg’s librettist, Dorothy Donnelly, handles this bittersweet story – based on and mostly faithful to a 1901 German play called Alt Heidelberg – quite skillfully; and Romberg himself keeps the musical spotlight quite clearly on the prince, Karl-Franz (Dominik Wortig), and the innkeeper’s daughter, Kathie (Anja Petersen), whom he comes to love. They get pretty much all the emotion here, and there is no clearly delineated “second couple” providing a foil for the primary one – with the result that the focus on the soon-to-be-parted lovers is all the stronger.
Donnelly and Romberg even explore a bit of the reality of the politics and romantic dalliances of Old Europe by having Karl-Franz eventually return to rule his (fictitious) nation and marry Princess Margaret (Theresa Nelles), whom he does not love – while the princess far more easily sheds her own dalliance with Captain Tarnitz (Christian Sturm), because, after all, it is one thing to flirt and have an affair here and there before settling down, but quite another to fall deeply in love with one’s soulmate, as Karl-Franz has the misfortune to do. And it really is misfortune: the operetta’s conclusion, in which Kathie nobly does the right thing for Karl-Franz and his country by falsely claiming to have a beau of her own and to be leaving for Vienna to marry him, leaves both principals thoroughly unsatisfied with the understanding and acceptance that they will, and must, follow their own destinies, but that each is giving up the greatest love he or she will ever know. That is a very late-Lehár conclusion, but Romberg handles it in his own way, and a very effective way it is. Yet The Student Prince is too much of its time to have the staying power of Der Zarewitsch or, for that matter, Friederike or Das Land des Lächelns, which are also bittersweet tales of mismatched and eventually parted lovers – for the specific circumstances of Romberg’s work are an integral part of what made it popular, while the settings of those by Lehár are ultimately incidental to their central human stories. Still, from a strictly musical standpoint, straddling as it does the worlds of operetta and Broadway musicals, The Student Prince is very much worth hearing, its sheer melodic flow carrying listeners along in much the same way it must have enchanted audiences 90-plus years in the past – for all the differences of 21st- and 20th-century circumstances. Romberg’s music as a whole is overdue for reconsideration – perhaps this very fine recording will be the harbinger of the re-exploration it deserves.
John Philip Sousa’s operetta music could use some re-hearing, too – the “March King” wrote a great deal more than marches, including some 15 operettas (not all of which he completed). The 16th volume in the excellent Sousa wind-music series on Naxos, led by Keith Brion with his usual spirit and attentiveness to detail and balance, in fact has a strong focus on Sousa’s operettas: more than half the music here comes from them. The longest work on the disc by far is an extended set of selections from The Charlatan (1898). It shows Sousa to be much indebted to Sir Arthur Sullivan (he admired and made some arrangements of Gilbert and Sullivan works), but still able to put his own stamp on the tunes, which sound quite effective in band rather than orchestral guise (this is the second volume of this series featuring the very-high-quality Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy). Also here are two pieces from Sousa’s last, unfinished operetta, The Irish Dragoon (1915) – the spirited Overture and a short Circus Galop, neither of which has been recorded before. In addition to those two world première recordings, this CD contains two others: Tyrolienne (1880-82), a set of variations on a French folk song, and Homeward Bound (c. 1885), a recently rediscovered and somewhat patched-together piece that may contain only Sousa tunes or may be one of his medleys of popular music of the time. And then there are works that show how adept Sousa was in multiple musical forms: I’ve Made My Plans for the Summer (1907) is a pleasant waltz featuring a solo cornet; Pushing On (1918) is a wartime march song; On the Tramp (1879) is a very early march, whose title is a phrase that at the time meant “out of work and looking for some”; and The Triumph of Time (1885) is a powerful parade march. The remaining two works here, both from 1918, have some particularly interesting history. Wedding March was written to replace the popular German wedding marches by Mendelssohn and Wagner at a time when anti-German sentiment ran particularly strong. And the version heard here of The Star-Spangled Banner, created by Sousa in collaboration with famed conductor Walter Damrosch, was intended to standardize a highly patriotic song that had been recognized for official use in 1916 but would not become the United States’ national anthem until 1931. This long-running Sousa sequence continues to establish the composer’s considerable abilities in many musical forms, operetta definitely included. It is also true, though, that the series confirms, without necessarily intending to, that calling Sousa the “March King” was apt: although his non-march works are uniformly well-made and show rhythmic vitality and an adept disposition of instruments, they are neither as distinctive as his marches nor as clearly indicative of his considerable talents as a composer.