Thursday, 19 March 2009

Die Herzogin von Chicago Kálmán Korngold

To understand the music of the 1920's and 30's it helps to listen to the music of the time. This might sound obvious, but a lot of what is written these days follows assumptions that don't reflect how music was actually heard and made. These sanitized assumptions in turn change the way we hear things, not for the best.

That's why Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán's Die Herzogin von Chicago is such an important piece. Kálmán was a student of Bartók and Kodály, so his credentials are legit, even though Die Herzogin was an immense popular success. In this crazy, witty operetta, Kálmán integrates conventional "serious" music with jazz, and also draws on the long-standing Austro-German tradition of satirical cabaret (which Schoenberg knew about). The opera is a trenchant comment on the impact of America and social revolution on a Europe just emerging from the First World War. It's hilarious, but no less significant for that.

In 2004, the opera was revived in Vienna to great acclaim. The original 1928 version was five hours long with lots of dialogue, much of which was topical controversy at the time. Some of the savage social edge remains, for when the editors condensed the original script they created a scene where corrupt politicians discuss "expediency" while dividing the spoils. Some things don't ever change!

An impossibly wealthy American heiress, Miss Mary, makes a bet with her Chicago friends that she can bag a prince when she goes to Europe, because anything can be bought with money. In fact it's really not all that different in Europe, for in the tiny kingdom of Sylvania, Prince Sándor Boris and his Ministers are trying to keep the cheering natives happy while the King is off to Paris. Then, as now, there’s nothing like a Royal Wedding to please the locals. They even have "Prince" dolls! The Prince's fiancée is in on the act, for act it is. Neither has illusions.

Cut to Miss Mary's arrival. "Cut" is the right word because one of the sub-texts of this operetta is the influence of Hollywood and the movies. Miss Mary’s best friend is Bondy, a film director, who sees all life as an unfolding movie. Throughout the opera there are references to movies. Kálmán creates hyper coloured music for the music sequences, which is surprisngly perceptive as movies at that time were silents. It's worth listening to this opera for the music alone as it tells something about the way film music germinated. Film music didn't just appear from nowhere. So much nonsense is written about composers and film that this opera is an antidote. Kálmán was a near contemporary of Erich Korngold, and they would have known of each other. Interestingly, both moved to California, and back to Vienna where they both died in the early 50's.

The Prince doesn't want to marry the American so gets his aide to play him while he plays the aide. We've all seen this plot device before, and here it's hilariously well done. Miss Mary must know the device too as she pursues the "aide" and dumps the "prince". The Sylvanians want her money and she wants status. Cue for a great party scene with Viennese waltz on gypsy violin, and songs about Schubert and Johann Strauss, who "shall return one day". There's a nightclub scene where Miss Mary does the charleston, and a bizarre parody of Beethoven's Fifth as foxtrot, danced by two bald women. There’s a takeoff of Ernst Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf which had been the sensation of Vienna in 1926 – Kálmán steals Krenek’s central image of a black man with a golden saxophone! Krenek’s operetta, incidentally, was also revived in Vienna in 2003, so there are in-jokes within in-jokes.

Of course Miss Mary falls for the Prince in disguise and Princess fiancée falls for Bondy, the movie director. To jazz up the old story, part of the staging involves a backdrop on which scenes from movies are projected. In fact they show the same four characters, got up as fantasy. It's a scream. The Prince and Mary dissolve into a cartoon cowboy and an Indian Princess, called Morgenrot, and cruise along in a canoe in the moonlight – modern eyes might see references to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, especially as Bondy is schmoozing Princess Rosemarie! It’s also a great excuse for more wonderful "Indian" dancing that gets progressively more bizarre, because as we know real Native American culture was already being parodied in Hollywood. It makes a surprisingly powerful point about cultural imperialism and what might face Europe if Europeans didn’t hold their own. As one of the directors said, "it’s still relevant".

Despite the whimsy, there is serious stuff. America was showing the Old World a completely different way of living, much more shocking to Europeans then than we realize, after eighty years of familiarity through TV, mass media and cheap travel. That was still the age when European peasants emigrated, never to return. This operetta makes a strong point that, for all their exoticism, Americans are, at heart, dislocated Europeans. Bondy reveals that his grandfather was a Jewish nobody from some tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. How shocked the old man would be to see his grandson hobnobbing with royal Sylvanian families!

Then the King comes back, with two Parisian floozies, and tries to put the make on Miss Mary who isn’t falling for that Kuss die Hande nonsense. It is hard to describe just how wild the jokes are from now on, parodying French operetta and German, wordplays and wit, with references to Viennese culture, current events (like monkey glands and Viagra). And of course, everything ends up "happily ever after", though it's like whistling in a graveyard.

Die Herzogin von Chicago is available on CD and DVD - I'd recommend the DVD for the fabulous sets, staging and acting. "Opera archaeology" may have dug the score up and revised it, but this is a fabulous, important moment in music history.

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