Lehar’s ‘Frederica’ by Concert Operetta Theater

Tom Purdom
Broad Street Review
17 June, 2014

Concert Operetta Theater productions usually win my heart because they immerse their audience in an airy world of romance and song. For his latest production, music director Daniel Pantano chose a work that provoked somewhat heavier emotions.

Franz Lehar’s Frederica is a fictionalized account of the love affair between young Johann Wolfgang Goethe and a provincial parson’s daughter named Friederike Brion. The story rests on the idea that marriage and the demands of family life conflict with the full flowering of artistic talent. In Lehar’s version of the story, Frederica sacrifices her personal happiness so Goethe can accept a court post and fulfill his destiny as a great writer and statesman.

Many writers and artists avoid permanent entanglements and flit from relationship to relationship like Hollywood stars. But I also know, from observation and personal experience, that many form permanent, deeply bonded marriages. Writers’ spouses, in my opinion, deserve all the thanks they traditionally receive in acknowledgments and dedications. A writing career is inherently turbulent and insecure. A good marriage creates a base that helps the writer cope with the social and economic insecurities. A stable emotional relationship helps a writer live with the inner chaos that powers much of the creative process.

In Lehar’s operetta, Frederica breaks off the relationship, breaking her own heart so Goethe can pursue his career, even though Lehar’s fictional Goethe insists he wants to refuse the court appointment and marry her. In real life, Goethe apparently abandoned Friederike. He seems to have been the kind of writer who felt he had to experience a series of romantic relationships. In the end, however, he, too, settled into a secure base: In his middle years, Goethe lived with a mistress, Christiane Vulpius, for 18 years and fathered several children. A band of Napoleon’s soldiers broke into their home one night in 1806 and the mistress drove them off. Goethe married her the next day and they stayed married until she died 10 years later.

Touching but exasperating

I found Frederica touching and exasperating. I took it much more seriously than you’re supposed to take operettas, but that may be appropriate. In listings of Lehar’s works, Frederica is labeled singspiel, a category that places it somewhere between operetta and opera. Singspiels combine singing with spoken dialogue, like operettas, but they’re supposed to be more serious.

Musically, Frederica sounds very operatic. Its solos have some of the heft and thrust of grand opera arias. Daniel Pantano recruits his casts from young, operatically trained singers. Their operatic delivery sometimes overwhelms the lighter musical style that characterizes Viennese operetta. In this case, however, the grand opera style suited many of the songs.

Both of the leads have spectacular voices. Soprano Megan Monaghan presented, in addition, an affecting portrait of a serious, attractive young woman. Frederica is definitely the central character, not Goethe, but tenor Dominick Chenes received a lion’s share of the rafter splitting numbers. Frederica is one of the six operettas Lehar wrote for a Viennese tenor, Richard Tauber, and Chenes hit his arias with the force Lehar must have had in mind when he created showcases for his star.

The second soprano, Christina Chenes, added a welcome touch of vivacity as Frederica’s impish sister. The second tenor, William Lim, distinguished himself in the somewhat thankless role of the eternal suitor who can’t advance beyond likeable best friend status. Lim provided the comic relief in the first act when he entered carrying a stuffed lamb as he sang his only solo, “My Lambkin.”

Concert Operetta Theater presents its operettas concert style, without the costumes and settings that ornamented the original performances. The performers read most of the dialogue from scripts and sing behind music stands. The acting and small bits of business proved, once again, that the theater is a magic place where simple devices can create huge, thought-provoking illusions.