Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Salute to Vienna (Attila Glatz Concert Productions/KPBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” was A Salute to Vienna, which judging from the promos for it I had expected would be a generalized tribute to the various high arts in Vienna. Instead it was exclusively an operetta concert, filmed at the Vienna Volksoper (their operetta theatre, equivalent to Lyric Opera San Diego and the venue where many of the most famous operettas, including Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, were premiered) last April 25 with a pretty no-name cast of singers, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, British pop tenor Russell Watson (who sang the “Serenade” from Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince with perfect technical finesse and almost no emotion whatsoever; when Mario Lanza made the version I consider definitive, he played a man whose soul was wrenched by the conflict between love and duty, and with Lanza’s record extant there’s no excuse for a modern-day tenor, even a pop tenor, to sing it as if it were just another piece of pretty music) and hosts Frederica von Stade and Maximilian Schell. Maximilian Schell actually got a vocal feature, the “Song of the Emperor” from Robert Stolz’s The White Horse Inn, and he did surprisingly well, mainly because he got to talk-sing it much the way Rex Harrison and Richard Burton did in My Fair Lady and Camelot, respectively (both musicals composed by Frederick Loewe, who was born in Berlin but whose parents were Viennese). In a concert filled with people with nondescript voices (though the guy who sang the Gondolier’s Song from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s A Night in Venice was really cute and had one of the better voices of the night), von Stade’s two numbers, “Vilia” and the famous waltz from The Merry Widow, stood out. Though her voice is clearly worn from the years (I remember buying — and enjoying — her first recital album in 1978), she nonetheless sang with a command and a breadth of wisdom and experience that eluded the pretty young things on the stage with her.

Granted that this was the Volksoper and not the Vienna Philharmonic (the Wiener Philharmoniker was the very last major symphony orchestra in Europe to gender-integrate), still it was gratifying to see a lot of women in the ranks of the musicians — including a rather hatchet-faced first violinist with a striking resemblance to Ayn Rand. It’s true that the numbers from The Merry Widow were hardly presented with the style with which Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch directed the first two film versions (I’ve got the third one, directed by Curtis Bernhardt — another expat from the German-speaking world! — in the backlog but I haven’t seen it) — as beautifully as von Stade created the mood for “Vilia” I’d have liked to seen her do it in dappled black-and-white cinematography in a garden set made to look moonlit the way Jeanette MacDonald got to do it in the Lubitsch film, and somehow the “Girls! Girls! Girls!” chorus sounded even more sexist in the original German than it had with the English lyrics Lorenz Hart wrote for the Lubitsch movie — but there’s still a reason why this score has stood out among almost all other operettas (only Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus rivals it, and quite frankly I find the music of The Merry Widow more memorable than that of Die Fledermaus). A Salute to Vienna was hardly the show it could have been with a greater breadth of focus — though it occurs to me that very few of the composers identified with Vienna were actually born there. The most famous composers from Austria, Mozart and Bruckner, were both from “the sticks” — Salzburg and Linz, respectively (Linz was also the home town of Adolf Hitler, which didn’t exactly help its postwar reputation) — and Mahler was born in a village called Kalischt, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), though Arnold Schönberg was authentically Viennese, as were his “Second Vienna School” colleagues Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Alexander von Zemlinsky.[1] (Then again, a tribute to the “Second Vienna School” of composers famous for their invention of atonality and serialism was probably not going to keep the phones ringing on KPBS’s pledge nights.)

Given how hard it was to keep track of what was being played or sung in a darkened room, watching a home-recorded DVD of a show on a low-def TV, with the brief titles explaining what the selections were and who was singing them being very small and flashing on the screen quite briefly, it was almost impossible for me to keep track of who was singing what, and aside from von Stade’s most of the voices were pretty nondescript anyway (as was most of the music, except for the Merry Widow excerpts and Lehár’s “Mein lippen sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta, sung by a woman who aside from von Stade was the most formidable singer of the bunch, though between her bright red dress and the flower in her hand she looked like she’d wandered in by mistake from a production of Carmen, and frankly I’d much rather have seen and heard her in that!). A Salute to Vienna — really it would have been more accurately called A Salute to Viennese Operetta, since to the extent they ventured off the operetta reservation it was for Viennese standards like the “Blue Danube” waltz (effectively danced by a few couples but drowned in treacle by the Vienna Choir Boys — incidentally at least one of the current crop of Vienna Choir Boys is Black, as was one of the adult choral singers elsewhere in the program) and Johann Strauss, Sr.’s “Radetzky March” — was the sort of concert where each individual number is appealing and even charming, but heard one after the other with almost nothing to break the monotony of songs about girls, boys and alcoholic beverages set to lilting but rather sappy strains, the show began to seem like something that could induce diabetes. Incidentally this was a direct production of KPBS in conjunction with Attila Glatz Concert Productions, Inc. (who probably supplied most of the performing talent), though the Vienna Tourism Board (or whatever they call it) was also a sponsor and have coined the singularly unattractive slogan, “Vienna: Now or Never,” as if Vienna will either be blown up to make room for a new state-of-the-art casino or inundated by global warming in the next two years and therefore if you don’t go there now you’ll never have the chance at all.

[1] — Zemlinsky’s Wikipedia page claims he never actually wrote atonal or serial music, even though that was what the “Second Vienna School” was famous for, and it describes him moving from Brahms as his early influence and key supporter to a Wagner influence in his later works — exactly the opposite direction from Schönberg’s evolution from copying Wagner in early pieces like Transfigured Night and Gurrelieder to, at the end of his life, orchestrating one of Brahms’ chamber works and writing a 1947 essay called “Brahms the Progressive.”