By JR on Sunday, April 12, 2015
Kalman's Graefin Mariza at Moerbisch in 2004
I am at the moment "nuts" about the 2004 performance at Moerbisch of Kalman's Graefin Mariza. I have already written a bit about it but I think I should add a few things that might, via the magic of Google, be helpful to people looking for more information about it. There is very little available in English about it online so far.
I think I have watched the show every night since I got the DVD some weeks ago. It is to me great entertainment and also a perfect work of art. I even still laugh at jokes that I have heard around 30 times already! The combination of Kalman's music and the no-expenses-spared staging at Moerbisch is hard to beat. I love the Moerbisch steam train.
And, in the usual way for operettas, the show is exceedingly romantic. Love is its theme. So why the Devil do I enjoy it? I see myself as one of the world's least romantic persons. But as the ancient Greeks used to say, "It's a wise man who knows himself" and the fact that I have been married four times may be some evidence of that. And I still think that I married four very fine ladies.
You can view the whole Moerbisch performance of Graefin Maritza online here. But if you want English subtitles you will have to buy the DVD. The words are of course in German, but the music is international.
The producers of the show never resolved the conflict between representing the period of the show as either the 1920s when it was written or the late 19th century in which it is set. There were also a few references to modern times, but mainly for humorous effect. I was rather pleased that a passing reference to the EU got a big laugh. It is a bureaucratic monster that needs to be laughed at.
The story is that an Austro-Hungarian lady (Mariza) is plagued by so many suitors that she retreats to her estate in Hungary on the pretence that she is going to get married there. She has however an elderly suitor who follows her to her estate. Her estate manager (Herr Toerek) is in fact an impoverished aristocrat and she (of course!) falls in love with him. But then there is a big misunderstanding that has to be resolved.
The second-string story involves involves a rich Yugoslav estate owner, Baron Zsupan, and the sister of "Herr Toerek". She wants him but he initially thinks he wants Mariza. When he finally realizes that he really wants the sister he has the devil of a job getting her back.
Moerbisch is such a prestigious venue in the world of operetta that the organizers must have had just about untrammeled choice among all the many singers of the German lands. Germans did terrible things to themselves (and others) in two world wars but artistic talent still abounds there. So the directors at Moerbisch could demand performers who were both brilliant singers and great actors -- and pretty good dancers too. And in 2004 they got all that.
And Dagmar Schellenberger as Mariza was the first among greats. Her brilliant acting and rich soprano voice rather mesmerize me. Her acting would be taken as over-acting at Hollywood but it was perfect for operetta, where realism is secondary to a great show. I enjoy her amazingly expressive acting as much as her faultless singing. She has exceptionally expressive eyes. Her facial and bodily expressions are perfect for every moment of the story and convey almost as much as her singing. She does hauteur, anger and ecstasy equally briliantly.
And I loved the comic performance by Marco Kathol as Baron Zsupan almost as much. He is a very good tenor who, unusually, was also a ballet dancer for some years. And his dancing background shows. His moves are so fleet and flexible that they are a wonder to watch. He must have been a pretty good ballet dancer too. He is a pleasure to watch.
And he is obviously still very strong and fit. He picks up Schellenberger as easily as if she were one of the wispy little ladies of ballet. And Schellenberger looks to be a fine figure of a woman, almost a "big bizzem", as they say in Scotland. When the character Penizek later in the show checks out her "architecture" he had reason to be pleased with what he saw. For most of the show she wears heavily "glammed up" clothes that rather disguise her body but when she gets into her milkmaid Tracht towards the end of the show she looks very good indeed.
In another operetta, Die lustige Witwe, we find the meaning of "architecture" spelled out a little more -- as a good mezzanine and a good balcony. I think we get the drift.
All of the singers in the show performed their roles very well but it is Schellenberger and Kathol who cause me to watch it again and again. After watching the show many times I now laugh the minute I see Kathol roll onto the stage on his railway handcar.
The best song of the show is undoubtedly the Varazdin song. It is very catchy. But until you try to sing it you don't realize that it is a tongue-twister too. Kathol and Schellenberger to well to gallop energetically through it. When I try to sing along I can't do it. I always stumble over Gulaschsaft (goulash juice). The words are below:
Komm mit nach Varazdin! So lange noch die Rosen blüh'n,
Dort woll'n wir glücklich sein, wir beide ganz allein!
Du bist die schönste Fee, von Debrecen bis Plattensee,
Drum möcht mit dir ich hin nach Varazdin!
Denn meine Leidenschaft, brennt heisser noch als Gulaschsaft
Und in der Brust tanzt Herz mir Czardas her und hin!
Komm mit nach Varazdin, so lange noch die Rosen blüh'n,
Dort ist die ganze Welt noch rot, weiss, grün!
The "rot, weiss, grün" (red white and green) refers to the colours of the Hungarian flag. The operetta is set in a grand Hungarian estate.
The male lead in the show has some good arias, with "Komm Zigan" being particularly dramatic, but none of them stuck with me the way the Varazdin song did.
Go to the 48 minute mark on the video for the Varazdin song. The words of the whole Varazdin segment are here
The inhabitants of the fine city of Varazdin in Northern Croatia are probably not too keen on the song as it portrays Varasdin as home to 18,000 pigs -- when Varazdin has much grander real claims than that.
It took me a long time to figure out what the luminous blue ball was all about but I think I finally get it. It represents the moon. The gypsy woman "Manja" prophesied that in one lunar cycle Mariza would find love. And when they do acknowledge their love they hand the ball back to Manja. The lunar month is over. And at that point Serafin reappears to mark the end of the month.
And if you know a bit of history some strange things happen. When Mariza asks Herr Toerek, "Haben Sie einen Frack" he replies affirmatively. But nobody in the show at any time wears a late 19th century Frack. A late 19th century Frack was what was known in English as a frock coat, a long coat that belled out slightly towards the bottom. It was not cutaway. You occasionally see them on gamblers and the like in cowboy movies. In Graefin Mariza formal dress is the more modern Frack of the 1920s, a tailcoat. The producers of the show kept the original words but not the period dress. The subtitle translators rendered Frack as "dress-shirt", which is simply wrong. "Evening clothes" would have been better.
And I should say something about the Puszta. It is mentioned quite a lot both at the beginning and the end of the show. In the subtitles, it is sometimes translated (as "prairie") and sometimes not. As Wikipedia informatively says: "The Hungarian puszta is an exclave of the Eurasian Steppe". It is a large area mostly of grassland with rather infertile soils -- but the interesting part is the people who live there. Wikipedia doesn't tell you about that. It's a hard life there and it breeds a tough people. And it is the women of the Puszta who are idolized in Graefin Mariza. They are seen as particularly lively and attractive -- and, one suspects, rather easily seduced by rich Hungarian men.
Hungary generally is in fact greatly romanticized by Kalman. And not only mainstream Hungarian society but also the Hungarian gypsies are extolled. Gypsy music is in fact to a large degree the focus of the show. But gypsy fortunetelling is treated with respect, as are gypsy dancers. Why was Kalman so enthused by gypsies? It's got to have something to do with the fact that Kalman was a Hungarian Jew (born Imre Koppstein). Antisemitism was already rife in Vienna and elsewhere when Kalman was writing -- Nazism arose in fertile soil -- and it must have freaked him. So was he trying to claim a new identity for himself? Perhaps. He always seems to put some scraps of his native Magyar (Hungarian language) into his show and there were a few small bits in this show -- Jonapot etc.
There is a lot to note about the language in the show. It took me a while to figure out what was going on when the word Zigan was used. When sung, it sounded like Sieger (victor) to me but I eventually figured out that it was just an abbreviation for Zigeuner (gypsy).
And a curiosity about the language was a roughly 50/50 split over where the emphasis should be placed on Mariza. Is it MAHriza or MahRITza? Schellenberger pronounces it the latter way but others do not. So either way is "correct".
There is quite a lot of wordplay in the show but you miss most of it unless you know some German. One thing that struck me as odd was when the majordomo opined that Bela Toerek was named "Bela" because he was good looking -- an allusion to the Italian "bella", meaning beautiful. But Bela is a common Hungarian Christian name and Hungarian is unrelated to other European languages so how could he think that? Apparently there is no agreed meaning for the name "Bela" so he was at liberty to make a romantic speculation about it.
And the split between Northern and Southern German pronunciation is referred to. Northern Germans tend to look down on Southern Germans but Southerners don't give a damn about that. And Fuerstin Cuddenstein, the rich aunt, is portrayed as speaking in a broad Southern way. Like the Swiss, she says "Daitsch" instead of "Deutsch". So she brings her German teacher, a former thespian, with her to "improve" her speech.
The translators do a manful job of turning German into English but the translations are quite "free" (non-literal). I don't underestimate their difficulties, though. German and English were the same language 1500 years ago but a lot has changed since then. And the two languages do to an extent cut up reality in different ways these days. I have made a few notes about that from my days translating the German of Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler into English. A lot of what those two gentlemen said during their lives poses difficulties for the modern political Left so had not been available in translated form online. So it was amusing for me to let the cat out of the bag.
So all that adds up to the fact that you get a lot more out of the show to the extent that you understand German. Translations just cannot do the whole job of conveying the original intention of the text. One instance of that occurs when the Graefin is declaring her intention to stay on her Gut (estate). To deter any opposition to her decision,she adds, "sicher und sicher". That is certainly very emphatic in German and Schellenberger's facial expression says more than words probably could anyway. But sicher literally means firm or secure so you cannot translate it well directly. You have to use a circumlocution. And no circumlocution that I can think of is as emphatic.
And there is in the subtitles what I regard as a major mistranslation. Verwalter is translated as "bailiff", which mostly means an official of a law court these days. The German literally means someone who exercises power on behalf of someone else so a simple "manager" would have been better.
So I hope that my various comments here about things in the show will help to a small degree to make up for any lack of German in those who view it.
Mariza falls for her Verwalter
Harald Serafin, Schellenberger and the purloined letter
Schellenberger in her milkmaid Tracht
On to the politically incorrect bit!
Anne watches a lot more ballet than I do and Russia is of course a ballet powerhouse. You only have to see magical performances such as that by Ekaterina Kondaurova as the Firebird at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersberg to know why. And Anne remarked to me recently that she has never seen a black or Asian face in a ballet performance from Russia. All the faces look like the faces we both grew up amongst. You cannot usually tell one Northern European face from another just by looking at them. A Russian could be an English person for all that looks give away.
And I notice the same in the performances I have seen from Moerbisch. I have not seen them all so maybe there has been some "diversity" there at times. It's actually a bit of a shock to see someone who could be the person next door speaking very foreign-sounding German words.
But perhaps an old guy like me may be permitted to be pleased to be watching faces like those he grew up among.