Operetta Research Center
2 January, 2018
Yes, it’s that time of year again when New Year’s concerts are unavoidable. It’s also the time when those in charge of these concerts think it’s a good idea to dig up ‘operetta,’ or what they consider to be operetta. One who has done so on a grand scale, and multiple times, is Christian Thielemann in Dresden at the Semperoper. After Lehár and Kálmán extravaganzas – concerts that have been so extravagantly awful, stylistically speaking, that they deserve a special place in any operetta performance history – he has dedicated the 2017 New Year’s concert to music from films by German film company UFA. Remember, that’s the company that gave us film operetta classics such as Die drei von der Tankstelle and Der Kongress tanzt in the early 1930s, and then many Nazi favorites starring Zarah Leander and Marika Rökk, or Johannes Heesters. While the songs from these movies have become evergreens, and an integral part of German culture, they are not material you would generally associate with Christian Thielemann or the Staatskapelle Dresden, celebrated worldwide for Wagner, Bruckner and Richard Strauss.
To start the program, there was Korngold and music from his Hollywood movie Captain Blood. Which is decidedly not a UFA title. Korngold had to leave Germany – like many others – in 1933, it’s the same year that UFA fired all their ‘Jewish’ employees and cancelled contracts for future projects. Among the fired people was Werner Richard Heymann, but also Erik Charell who was scheduled to turn The Odyssey into a film operetta, starring Hans Albers. (Possibly with Heymann writing the music.) It never happened. And Korngold’s film career, in turn, did not take off till he got to Hollywood, where Heymann (the old music director of UFA) had established himself as competition in the meantime. So why perform Korngold in this context at all? (Maybe just to allow the orchestra to soar?)
While Korngold and his voluptuous orchestrations were ideal material for the Staatskapelle Dresden, everything that followed was on the questionable side. On the very questionable side of things. Yes, the songs written for UFA films, especially in Nazi times, had grand orchestra soundtracks. But the orchestras never drowned out the stars – and these stars were never (ever!) stiff opera people. Instead they were charismatic screen personalities with unique voices. If you know Zarah Leander’s version of “Nur nicht aus Liebe weinen” and compare it with mezzo Elisabeth Kuhlman … you are in for a sobering shock.
Or if you like Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch singing “Liebling mein Herz last dich grüßen,” and then hear Angela Denoke with this charming Heymann number, you could start to wonder what on earth is going on in Saxony. It’s not the new orchestral arrangements by people such as Jacob Brenner (who has done amazing operetta work in the past), but it’s the total inability of the soloists to adjust their voices to this type of music. And we are talking about music that most Germans watching this concert on TV will know in the original versions.
That is most certainly true for the Marlene Dietrich classic-of-classics from The Blue Angel, “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt.” Hearing Kuhlman with this – in a fur coat – would make you think you are listening to a parody straight from La cage aux folles. But without fun and humor. (Add to this an almost obnoxiously noisy drum accompaniment.)
The third soloist was Daniel Behle, a light tenor who works hard to make the famous Joseph Schmidt number “Ein Lied geht um die Welt” sparkle without the explosive qualities of Mr. Schmidt’s voice and style. And why Behle had to sing “Die ganze Welt ist himmelblau“ from Im weißen Rössl – when the UFA threw out people like Rössl creator Charell and the show itself was banned by the Nazis – makes you wonder again why such a title is included. Rössl was not even filmed by the UFA after 1945, in the two famous film versions starring Johannes Heesters and Peter Alexander, respectively.
The best thing about the whole affair – which promised a “high glamour factor” – was the TV narrator Bettina Volksdorf. She managed to give viewers at home (but not in the theater) some historical perspective and bring dignity to this concert, which otherwise would rank as a total disaster. Various critics in Germany, such as Manuel Brug in Die Welt, complained about the political insensitivity of Thielemann presenting Fascist propaganda songs from World War 2 together with music of people who had to escape Nazi Germany. And now play all of this in Dresden, without further comment and context, when a strong right wing movement is making headlines almost daily there. Can that be coincidence? Or just artistic provocation?
In the past, Thielemann’s Léhar and Kálmán interpretations had already been frightful. And untouched by any interest in historically correct performance practices. (I wonder whether he’s that carefree about his Wagner and Bruckner, too?) Thielemann seems stuck in a 1970s ideal of having to ‘ennoble’ entertainment music and lift it to ‘classical’ heights by having pompous opera singers almost strangle the music to death.
Considering that at the same time someone like Jonas Dassler appeared in a white Johannes Heesters tux in Berlin for New Year’s and demonstrated that you can serve up these titles very differently, and much more convincingly, or someone like Sarah Bowden and Katharine Mehrling showed a better understanding of this repertoire, also for New Year’s, it’s almost shocking to see that the big German TV station ZDF still continues its Thielemann series, which gets worse and worse every year.
I find it hard to believe that any music lover – whether from the world of classical music or operetta and Broadway – can seriously claim he or she gained pleasure from these performances.
One look at a Zarah Leander clip is enough to wipe the entire 2017 Dresden competition away. (And even Tim Fischer as Zarah today can wipe away the entire competion here.) If you really want to update these beloved songs, with new orchestrations, you should think a bit harder about how to do it, and with whom, i.e. with which singers. Since every soloist had microphones, the casting alternatives could have been endless. And Jonas Dassler, Katharine Mehrling and Sarah Bowden would have delivered a snappier “Musik, Musik, Musik” by Peter Kreuder than the trio Denoke, Kuhlman and Behlke. (Did I already mention that it was frightful?)
Let’s see if this TV program will find its way onto DVD or CD. Since the older releases on Deutsche Grammophon have all been commercial flops, chances could be high that the world is spared a luxury release this time.
To tell the truth, the Vienna concert with Riccardo Muti was not much better in its own horrible way. Even if so much Suppé music was included. It seems that the big orchestras and the big TV stations are not in sync with what is happening all over the place with operetta (in a wider sense). They are stuck in some weird place from which they should be kicked out of, asap.
You can watch the Dresden concert in the ZDF Mediathek here.