The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001
The eighth in Strauss’s list of Operetten, Der lustige Krieg followed behind the disastrous Blindekuh and the rather more successful Das Spitzentuch der Königin, and it reunited the composer with the Theater an der Wien’s most successful librettists, Zell and Genée (the veritable author of his Die Fledermaus book), with whom he had previously combined on the indifferent Cagliostro in Wien. Der lustige Krieg premiered at the Theater an der Wien, on 25 November 1881.
There is war between Massa-Carrara and Genoa, over the fact that these countries’ rulers are each claiming a binding contract with a certain ballet star, but it is a war where no one has yet come to blows, even though battle-lines are drawn. Violetta (Karoline Finaly), niece of the Princess Artemisia (Therese Schäfer) who heads the all-female army of Massa-Carrara, is to be married to the Duke of Limburg, in exchange for reinforcements, but her voyage to the wedding ceremony is betrayed to the Genoese by the chattery Marchese Sebastiani (Alexander Girardi). The Genoese commander Umberto Spinola (Ferdinand Schütz) intercepts both Violetta and the proxy husband sent by Limburg and, having fallen in love with the lady at first sight, he himself takes the deputy bridegroom’s place in a hasty wedding. Spinola forces a little Dutch tulip-grower, Balthasar Groot (Felix Schweighofer), who has unknowingly wandered into the war-lines, to pretend to be the Duke and he then follows Violetta and her `husband’ to Massa-Carrara. But there, Sebastiani recognizes him and uncovers Groot’s impersonation, at which it becomes apparent that Violetta has married … a Genoese! Since she is by now thoroughly in love with him, she has no objection to the fact, and since there seems similarly no longer to be a need for battle-lines, the merry war is declared over.
The splendidly silly book — easily the best of those with which Strauss was supplied in his post-Die Fledermaus period — was based on that used for Henri Reber’s 1857 French opéra-comique Les Dames capitaines, and it spurred the composer to one of his most attractive and versatile scores. The musical numbers ranged from the glittering coloratura of Violetta’s polka `Für diese Kriegezugs Wohl und Wehe’ to the bristling march strains of her `Es war ein lustig’ Abenteuer’, to the warmly beautiful song for the Dutchman’s little wife (Rosa Streitmann) who has lost her husband and his cargo of precious tulip-bulbs somewhere amongst the war (`Durch Wald und Feld’), their third-act duet, woefully and sweetly wondering when they will ever get out of this mess and back to their little Dutch family (`Zwei Monat sind es schon’), and the first-act waltz quintet, `Kommen und gehen’.
However, Der lustige Krieg had not only a delicious score, it had a hit number, one which (like so many of its fellows before and after) was not originally in the show. Alexander Girardi, one of the Theater an der Wien’s principal comedians here cast as Sebastiani, threatened to strike unless he was given a solo. Strauss wearily complied, Franz Wagner supplied the extra songwords which Genée was too busy to come up with, and Girardi squeezed `Nur für Natur’ into the show’s second act. The waltz turned out to be not only the hit of the show, but the biggest theatre song-hit in years. It played a significant part in initially helping Der lustige Krieg to success, and his light, comic tenor performance of it made Girardi — who had been around for a few years in increasingly worthwhile rôles — into a major star overnight.
Der lustige Krieg held the stage at the Theater an der Wien through the Christmas and New Year period before being removed to allow some guest performances to be played, but it returned later in the year to notch up its 100th performance at the beginning of September. By this time, however, it had run half way round the world.
An extremely fine success in Germany — it got no fewer than 200 performances in just 9 months at the Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater — was quickly followed by an excellent reception in Budapest (ad Lajos Evva, Béla J Fái) where a topline Népszinház cast was headed by Aranka Hegyi, Mariska Komaromi, Zsöfi Csatay, János Kápolnai and Elek Solymossy and featured Vidor Kassai as the now all-important Sebastiani.
Six weeks later New York saw the piece (already announced as ‘a success in 27 German cities’) in the original German as played by Jenny Stubel (Violetta), Marie Seebold (Else), Adolf Link (Sebastiani) Gustav Adolfi (Groot) and Alexander Klein (Umberto), and three months after that The Merry War was seen on Broadway in English (ad L C Elson) in the repertoire of J W Norcross’s Opera Company. This production ended up transferring to the Metropolitan Alcazar where the company happily jettisoned the rest of its repertory for the season and simply played one and the same show for a remarkable seven consecutive weeks. W T Carleton, Dora Wiley, Belle Cole, Louise Paullin, Richard Golden and Adolfi (this time in English) headed this cast which brought the piece back for two further weeks later in the same season, before Carleton took the show touring far and wide under his own banner. New York was, however, far from finished with its favourite Strauss Operette, for in September 1882 Der lustige Krieg was remounted at the Thalia Theater, in October it was burlesqued by Irene Worrell and Lina Aberle at Aberle’s Theater, and at the beginning of 1884 the Casino Theater staged a major revival with Lilly Post starred as Violetta, which added two further months to The Merry War‘s Broadway tally. Between 1885 and 1889 it was again played each season in repertoire in the German theatres, and Carleton and his company toured the English version throughout the country for several seasons. The Merry War was undoubtedly the most successful of all Strauss’s works on the American stage in the century of its creation.
Prague, Naples, Strasbourg and Stockholm had all hosted the show before London put out its version (ad Robert Reece) on the vast stage of the Alhambra, which had already hosted Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and King Indigo without exceptional results. Constance Loseby (Violetta), Henry Walsham (Spinola), Vienna’s Lori Stubel (Else) and Albert Lefevre headed the cast. Unfortunately Miss Stubel miscalculated London’s tastes and, when she pulled up her partner’s stocking-tops in what London first-nighters found a rather vulgar fashion, she drew the wrath of the audience on her. She promptly thumbed her nose back at them. Things Viennese did not impress some of the more hidebound London music critics either. One sniffed `dance music such as [Strauss] writes is very attractive in the ballroom, but it is apt to weary the hearer when polka and waltz melodies are given throughout the entire opera’. However The Merry War (with Frln Stubel quickly replaced by Kate Sullivan) had settled in nicely when, five weeks into the run, the Alhambra was burnt down. It was 56 years before the piece got another London showing (New St Pancras Theatre 2 January 1939), and Strauss’s most melodious show never recovered from the overheated start which prevented it establishing itself in England.
La Guerre joyeuse (ad Alfred and Maurice Hennequin) was produced in Brussels (Alcazar Royale, Brussels 21 November 1885) with Claire Cordier as Violetta and Monsieur Minne singing `Pour la nature’ in a score which had been `adapté par Maurice Kufferath’, but it did not make its way to Paris. This may very well have been because Strauss was not keen, after the fuss that had been made over his librettist’s unauthorized borrowing of Le Réveillon as the source for Die Fledermaus, similarly to tangle with the representatives of the original French author of the `borrowed’ Les Dames capitaines.
In Vienna, Der lustige Krieg was played in repertoire through 1882 and 1883, and in 1885 the Theater an der Wien mounted a new production with Girardi teamed with Marie-Theresia Massa and Josef Joseffy. It was revived at the Carltheater in 1898 with Ottilie Collin and Natzler and at the Johann Strauss-Theater in 1911-12 with Grete Holm as Violetta, and it had a continuing success through the 19th and early 20th centuries holding an indubitable third place behind Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron as the most popular of Strauss’s works in central Europe. Only with the coming of increasingly sentimental and romantic tastes (as opposed to the continuous comedy this work displays) in the later 20th century did it give way to the revamped, scenery-worthy Eine Nacht in Venedig and to the pasticcio Wiener Blut, which are now played and recorded in preference to it.
A hacked-about version of the show rewritten by Wilhelm Sterk, with the music rearranged by Felix Günther, in which Balthasar (Richard Waldemar) became a strolling player, Else disappeared and Violetta (Anni Ahlers) acquired a sister called Nina (Marianne Kupfer) alongside Hans Heinz Bollmann’s Umberto and Ernst Tautenhayn’s Cipriani, was produced at the Johann Strauss-Theater on 23 December 1929 by Erich Müller, and subsequently in Hungary (asszonyháború Városi Színház 13 November 1931) and another partially rewritten version was produced at Augsburg in 1957 (Städtische Bühne 23 August ad Eugen Mühl) under the title Fürstin Violetta.
Germany: Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater 19 January 1882; Hungary: Népszinház A furcsa háboru 31 January 1882; USA: Thalia Theater 15 March 1882, Germania Theater The Merry War 27 June 1882; UK: Alhambra Theatre The Merry War 16 October 1882
Recordings: complete (ORF) (Austrian radio cast 1999), selections (Philips etc)