21 January 2007 | JasonTomes
Better heard than seen
This is a recording of a performance of "Simplicius" at the Zurich Opera House in 1999. Whatever reservations one may feel about it, its release is much to be welcomed. Johann Strauss is recognised to be one of the greatest operetta composers, yet the majority of his operettas have never been recorded. I was delighted to have a chance to make the acquaintance of one of the less well-known.
"Simplicius" (1887) resembles in many respects "Der Zigeunerbaron" (1885). Its score is of a similarly high standard (though without the Magyar colour). Most of the music is unlikely to be familiar even to Strauss enthusiasts however. That said, anyone who knows the "Donauweibchen" Waltz will recognise a number of melodies.
The unfamiliarity of the music means that attention tends to focus more on the plot and staging, and this "Simplicius" is an example of that rather unhappy modern sub-genre: opera-house operetta - i.e., operetta performed by people more accustomed to opera. The result is predictable. As a performance of the musical score, it is very proficient; as a staging of operetta, it is uncomfortable.
To draw a sharp dividing line between opera and operetta would be impossible, yet they are not the same. Operetta - even of the more substantial type - requires its own production-style. It is self-consciously artificial; it stands half-outside itself; it does not take its own plots seriously. To succeed on stage, therefore, operetta calls for comedy acting skills. Some opera singers possess these; most do not (and why should they?).
This fact is very much apparent here. Soprano Martina Jankova (Tilly) seems absolutely at home in operetta, captures the right tone, and is a pleasure to watch (as well as to hear). She comes from the Czech Republic, where the performance tradition of operetta may survive rather better than in western Europe. Piotr Beczala (Arnim), a tenor from Poland, also has the operetta touch. At the other extreme, Michael Volle could hardly appear more earnest if he were appearing in Wagner's "Götterdammerung". That said, he possibly gets away with it, as the hermit is a comparatively serious character. More problematic is the role of Melchior, the astrologer, which cries out for a comedian. Oliver Widmer tries his best, but it surely isn't his line. The title role in "Simplicius" is tricky: he is meant to be a young man who has been brought up in isolation from normal society (almost a 'feral child'). Martin Zysset conveys his childlike innocence but fails to realise that childlike mischief is also a component of the character. Many of the jokes in the dialogue pass unnoticed by the audience, as the actors fail to point them.
If casting is patchy, the staging is often downright off-putting. I deduce that one major difficulty about "Simplicius" - in the eyes of director David Pountney - was its light-hearted attitude to war. It is set in Moravia during the Thirty Years' War - a ghastly conflict - but its most catchy number is a jolly march whose words suggest that, if you haven't taken part in a cavalry charge, you've never lived. Arnim sings a song equally cheerful about exchanging his university studies for military service. Although other songs deride the notion that war is merry adventure, German-language operetta of the 1880s undeniably does include militaristic and nationalistic sentiment (and these are not all instantly given an ironic twist, as in the contemporary works of Gilbert and Sullivan). Pountney is very anxious to underline the fact that this sort of thing is not acceptable nowadays. Hence the chorus of soldiers is ragged and dirty. A troupe of Swedish dancing girls in Act III is replaced by a group of exhausted juvenile prisoners-of-war (though, incongruously, they sing the same comic ditty). At the end of Act II, when everyone proclaims 'God with us for Kaiser and Fatherland!', we are simultaneously confronted with the ugly face of war: a giant mask with flattened nose and bloody teeth. The principal feature of the set in Act III is a gibbet with a dozen rotting corpses.
The general trend of this production is thus to emphasise the gloomier aspects of the libretto. The opening scenes are so gloomy indeed that Simplicius' first waltz song sounds completely out of place. Like a perverse Mary Poppins, our director works on the assumption that opera-house audiences require a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down. The musical gaiety of operetta is only permissible in the opera-house, it seems, if balanced by some visual misery. The prevailing colours are grey and rust-red, and the lighting is subdued. Having purged the piece of much of its irresponsible lightness of heart, Pountney struggles to restore some vitality to it by injecting a dose of surrealism: enormous military boots are a feature. (The General stands in one throughout the second act). There is a good deal of fussy stage business with ropes and cylindrical platforms (the characters step from one to another). All of this extraneous embellishment is suggestive of a director without much faith in his material.
Indeed, Viktor Leon's libretto seems to be largely forgotten in the last quarter-hour, when the impetus of the plot (never very strong admittedly) is entirely dissipated. We have already had two numbers in succession without any dramatic relevance, but the director still sees fit to interpolate the entire "Donauweibchen" waltz: a number of seventeenth-century ladies and gentlemen dance about in a rain-storm and strip to their underwear (all underneath those rotting corpses).
The applause at the end is no more than polite. And no wonder. Fortunately, on repeated viewing, Strauss's splendid music comes to the fore, as the listener assimilates it. Lacking the genuine spirit of operetta in so many respects, this is indeed a production much better heard than seen.