Mercoledi Musicale

I couldn’t really tell you when I developed an obsession with Victor Herbert‘s Babes in Toyland but obsessed I did become.  Obsessed to the point that I sat through the Walt Disney movie version with Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands on my first trip to New York back in 1962 (more about that later).  I recall seeing a very bad print of the classic Laurel and Hardy adaptation March of the Wooden Soldiers – I bought a beautiful restored copy many years later.  But I knew that both films, and the TV versions from 1960 and 1986 were only a part of the extravaganza Fred Hamlin and Julian Mitchell produced back in 1903.  I could understand someone tampering with Glen MacDonough’s book as it seemed to have an excess of villains and and perhaps more romantic couples than were needed in a fantasy operetta.  However to exclude so much of Victor Herbert’s score seemed a crime.

Being an “extravaganza” of the period all the male fairy tale characters were played by comely young ladies in tights.  It was very much in the tradition of the pantomime Principal Boy in England.

And Herbert wrote a great deal of music for the show.  It was an extravaganza in the real sense of the word:  elaborate sets, special effects, a large ensemble, ballet sequences, precision dancing, marching, and specialty numbers tailored to the talents of individual cast members.  Twenty-three numbers were more or less constants by the time the show hit New York on October 1903 , five were cut during the initial Chicago run in June of that year, and a further four composed to accommodate cast changes, and the two companies that toured in 1904-05.  And of those 32 pieces (though one reference works suggests there may have been 43 in total) only five or six were ever used in the filmed productions.

moth ballet
Lost in the woods Jane and Alan are protected from a giant spider by the Moth Queen which leads to an elaborate Butterfly ballet to end Act 1 of Babes in the Wood.  This is a photo of the original 1903 production.

There had long been a rumour that musical archivist and conductor  John McGlinn had made a recording of the entire score in 2001 with many of the people that had participated in his previous recordings.  It was part of a larger project to record all of Herbert’s works which seemed to have hit a roadblock – financial? and artistically?  Whatever the reason it was never released; however, last year  it became available through various channels.  There is some real luxury casting in both the singing and speaking roles – Ian Richardson and Ian McKellen are the villians, and Hugh Panaro, Elizabeth Futral, and Rebecca Caine are the principles.

All the better known numbers are there: Don’t Cry Bo-Peep, March of the Toy Soldiers, Toyland, and this one sung by Korliss Uecker as the heroine Jane with the ladies of the London Voices (as both male and female nursery rhyme characters):


Given the nature of the piece it is no surprise that Herbert wrote Spanish character songs, Irish ballads, and satirical numbers on lonely hearts columns, the health food craze, and marriage, and what amount to operatic arias.  Or that he composed in pretty much every song metre and popular dance rhythm of the day including this lovely waltz celebrating – what else – Christmas:


Looking at the variety of material, and the requirements of the original book I can see why it hasn’t been revived except in a pared down version since that original grand extravaganza.  But fortunately the McGlinn recording allows us to imagine for a while that we’re watching ship wrecks, marching soldiers, giant spiders, magical transformations, and fairy tale characters as they saw them in at the Majestic Theatre back in 1903.

On this day in 1703:  Portugal and England sign the Methuen Treaty which gives preference to Portuguese imported wines into England.

Mercoledi Musicale

Yesterday I mentioned that the late Richard Wilbur wrote the lyrics for at least two of the musical numbers in Leonard Bernstein‘s operetta Candide. Further investigation revealed that the smorgasbord of lyricists who worked on this enigmatic work he was the entrée with John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman (who also wrote the libretto) and Bernstein himself providing side dishes, and the odd garnish.  At one point James Agate contributed material which went unused.   In subsequent metamorphoses additional lyrics have been provided by Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells.

The Playbill from then 1978 production I saw at the Broadway Theatre.  A very free-flow production as I recall.

After it’s initial Broadway failure in 1956 – a failure attributed in large part to Hellman’s libretto – the piece underwent a rewrite for off-Broadway by Hugh Wheeler in the 1970s.  This was later expanded for use by opera companies – including a production at Stratford in 1978.   A further adaptation was made under Bernstein’s supervision for what he considered the “final version” in 1989.  However Wheeler’s book was to be rewritten once again by John Caird for the National Theatre in 1999.  And so it continues – more than 60 years after it’s premiere is seems that Candide is still a work in progress.

Notably little of what Wilbur contributed has been altered in any of these versions including the two numbers I mentioned yesterday.

Any coloratura soprano worth her high E-flat (there are three of them) from Edita Guberova to Madeline Kahn (yes my dear our beloved Madeline was a trained opera singer) has sung – and in some cases recorded – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  However wonderful they may have been nothing can beat the lady for whom it was written.  Here’s the late Barbara Cook as Cunegonde bemoaning her very well-kept state!

Voltaire’s novelette ends with Candide rejecting his tutor Pangloss’s insistence that all the trials and tribulations have turned out for the best by necessity. Instead he simply insists that “we must cultivate our garden” (il faut cultiver notre jardin). From this phrase Wilbur and Bernstein build an inspiring and inspirted choral finale that just avoids being maudlin – strangely the only performance I have ever heard where the scales are tipped in that direction is conducted by Bernstein at his most sanctimonious. There are several performances out there but I think this one from the BBC Proms manages to capture all the words and avoid any hint of sentimentality.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

On this day in 1648: Boston Shoemakers form the first North American labor organization.

Mercoledi Musicale

Unfortunately it appears that the video extract I posted cannot be viewed in certain areas.  I’ve been searching for other extracts from the operetta and do apologize.  I have yet to decide whither it would be best to just take it down as the point was to introduce some lovely music.

Just in time for Christmas last year Opéra National de Lyon staged a wondrous revival of Jacques Offenbach’s satirical opéra-bouffe-féerie Le Roi Carotte (King Carrot).  It became the surprise hit of the opera season in France and was awarded the prize as “Best Rediscovered Work” at the International Opera Awards 2016.  It was televised over the holiday season in Europe and scored high with an even wider audience.

A poster by Henri Meyer from an 1891 production of Sardou and Offenbach’s opéra-bouffée-feerie.

The work premiered at Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris in January of 1872 (it had been delayed by the Franco-Prussian War) and proved a popular success.  It had an initial run of 192 performances and pulled in 3,000 francs in daily profits.  However with four acts, twenty-two scenes, fifteen hundred costumes and a cast of several hundred it was an expensive show to run and had little chance of entering the standard repertoire.  However Offenbach and Victorien Sardou (Sarah Bernhardt’s playwright of choice) did publish a three-act version which was seen  in London and Vienna within a year or two of its Paris premiere.  The second version was revived several times in Paris but then seems to have disappeared.  According to a report in the New York Times in November of 1873 when it was produced for the first time at the new Grand Opera House in Manhattan ‘the music is to be given with additions and alterations made for this country by Offenbach himself.  Sardou has likewise composed a special “apotheosis” to end the spectacle …’  If a later report in the same newspaper is credible the scenery and costumes were much appreciated, Offenbach and Sardou’s efforts to please their New York audiences less so.

For the Lyon production conductor Victor Aviat and director Laurent Pelly went with the revised version with a successful (and funny) updating by Agathe Mélinand – though it appears that little updating was really required as much of Sardou’s satire seemed very, very current.

In the tradition of opéra-bouffe-féerie magic and magicians are involved in this story of a kingdom who’s monarch,  Fridolin XXIV, has bankrupt his country and is planning to wed a foreign princess for money.  As the courtship progresses a strange figure and his entourage appear:  King Carotte.  Carrot plans to subjugate the Kingdom to his greedy will.  Coloquinte, an evil fairy  has aroused him from his underground home and places an enchantment on the court and people of the kingdom.  No matter what stupid or rude thing Carotte does they blame Fridolin.  Carotte drinks and Fridolin appears drunk, Carrot sneezes and the King goes into spasms.  He picks his nose and the court turns on the Fridolin in disgust.  The interloper is boorish and makes outlandish statements and the King shoulders the blame.  Soon the court and populace have turned their back on Fridolin and proclaim Carotte as their new ruler.  They are blind to his ignorance and lies and no one can see the dangers that they soon will be facing in their Kingdom as they willingly succumb to the rule of a tyrant.

Costume for Le Roi Carotte – Draner – 1872

In the remaining acts Fridolin, his good sorcerer, and a few faithful friends attempt to find a way to oust the usurper and regain the kingdom.  At one point they are transported to Pompeii with instructions to find a magic ring.

They arrive at the the ruins of the once grand metropolis and they are struck by the sombreness of the “dead city” and in a glorious quartet express their fear, wonderment and even sadness of what has happened there.  If ever there was proof needed that Offenbach composed something more than a barcarole or a can-can this lovely piece should serve the purpose.  Here it is performed by Chloé Briot, Julie Boulianne, Yann Beuron and Jean-Sébastien Bou conducted by Victor Aviat.

The city is reanimated for them by magic and they escape with the ring just as Vesuvius begins to rock and roll.  Several attempts to overthrow Carotte fail until finally the populace tires of rising prices and the injustices of King Carotte and his band of thugs.  Realizing that they have been tricked and lied to the citizens start an uprising and restore Fridolin to his throne.  As I said Mélinand had to do very little updating to hit the satirical mark.

Every delightful moment of the Lyon production is available (in French only I’m afraid) on YouTube by left clicking:  Le Roi Carotte d’Offenbach à l’Opéra de Lyon.

On this day in 1836:  the Crystal Palace in London is destroyed by fire.

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