Der Vogelhaendler

Der Vogelhaendler is a bucolic comedy, by Carl Zeller, set in the 18th century and first performed in 1891. I recently watched the 1998 Moerbisch performance it, set in Austria. 

There have been many versions of the show done over the years, many of which differ quite considerably from one another.  There is a 1960s recording of the full show online here which has a very pretty version of the Rosen in Tyrol aria at the 46 minute mark.  There is a short excerpt from the version of the show that I have here

Der Vogelhaendler means the bird dealer, though the show had very little to do with birds. But it did have a lot to do with the difference between Tyrol and Kaernten (Carinthia) -- and if you don't know about that, the show does explain, sort of.  A lot of the differences do not survive translation into English, however.  There is actually a fair bit of levity about Tyrolean dialect. Tyroleans are presented as very old-fashioned.

Ute Gfrerer

I was greatly looking forward to seeing this show as the multi-talented, blue-eyed Austrian soprano Ute Gfrerer was in it.  And she did not disappoint at all, at all.  It was a great role for her and she filled it brilliantly.  She was in particularly good voice.  Her voice had a bell-like quality in the early scenes that suggested technical help to me.  Though it may just have been reverb from the adjacent sets.

There was no doubt about the power of her voice, however.  When at the end of the show she sang in unison with the very capable tenor (Sebastian Reinthaller), it was her voice that dominated.  A singing lady I know tells me that sopranos generally do that but I am not so sure.  Some wonderful soprano voices can be quite small -- Hallstein, for instance. 

And she has a sort of inbuilt levity and that shows even in the most unpromising scenes. I do fault Harald Serafin for not giving us a bit more of Gfrerer's famous big and happy smile, though.  We got some of that at the beginning and a bit of it at the end but it was not enough. 

A picture from her home page

I actually liked Gfrerer even better here than I liked her in the 2004 version of Lustige Witwe at Zurich.  She had a much more varied role here and did all the parts well.  And am I allowed to mention that she was 6 years younger here than at Zurich?  Very wicked of me, I am sure.  She would have been 23 in 1998 so was at her peak in some ways for this show -- with youthful good looks.  But, as we see above, she is gorgeous to this day.  Am I being maudlin?  Probably.

Martina Serafin

An odd thing about this show is that Harald Serafin did not cast himself in any of the parts, a rare thing.  But he gave his daughter, the attractive Martina Serafin, a leading part, so that may have been why.  Maybe she said:  "It's me or you".

Interestingly, her father is never mentioned in any online biographies of her.  I was able to confirm the relationship only  by struggling through an Italian site.  My Italian is pretty shaky so I don't do that often.  But she seems to have developed a lot of affiliations with Italy and there was an interview where she attributed that to her father.  Even then she referred to him only as "a certain well-known conductor" rather than naming him. 

Slightly odd to refer to him as a conductor.  Maybe Italian has no word that precisely translates the German Intendant.  Apparently Harald is half Italian by birth -- which surprised me -- and Martina relates strongly to that part of her ancestry.  I came across her Facebook page at one point and it was in Italian.  I imagine the surname was originally "Serafino", which means "seraph" in Italian.  I think she could pass well as a Northern Italian or Roman lady.  I guess she does.

An interesting thing was that the Fuerstin, played by her, described her first meeting with her Fuerst by saying that he looked schoen to her.  German has no word for "handsome" so an attractive man is normally described as huebsch -- "pretty".  To describe him as schoen ("beautiful") is therefore a considerable compliment.

The famous aria from the show was of course "Roses in Tyrol" but I thought the aria sung by the princess (Serafin) in celebration of her husband ("Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum") was the standout aria. It makes me weep with its beauty. A version is  online here. It's undoubtedy one of the great love songs of all time.  In the song, the lady says she thought her husband looked beautiful when she first met him and also behaved beautifully on their wedding night.

The point of the song in the show is that she has just been informed of apparent infidelity by her husband.  She comments that it could not be so -- because she remembers him in their early life as being beautiful in both looks and behaviour.  And her faith is of course eventually justified.  Operetta has good endings.

Someone should do a singable translation of it. Here are the words with my rough translation:

Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum,  
As the cherry tree was blossoming
Ging ich zum Walde wie im Traum;  
I walked to the woods as in a dream
An des Brunnens kuehlen Rand, 
At the cool edge of the fountain
Wo hell die weisse Birke stand.  
Where brightly the white beech stood
An dem blauen Himmelsbogen 
Under the blue bow of the sky
Ging der Mond, die Sterne zogen
The moon came out and the stars shone
Einen Reiter hoert' ich jagen
I heard a horseman hunting
Und mein Herz hub an zu schlagen
And my heart gave a leap
Denn er hielt sein Roesslein an
When he reined in his dear horse
Ach ja, er war ein schoener, ein schoener Mann!  
Oh yes.  He was a beautiful, beautiful man

Still verklang der Hochzeit Pracht  
The wedding bells no longer rang
Und von den Bergen stieg die Nacht
And night was climbing up the mountains
Bang trat ich ins Brautgemach
I anxiously entered the bridal chamber
Und leise, leise schlich er nach!
And softly, softly he followed me
Draussen fielen Bluetenflocken
Outside flower petals fell
Drin der Kranz von meinen Locken 
Inside the garland from my hair
Heimlich fluestend half der Freier  
Softly whispering my suitor helped me
Mir zu loesen Band und Schleier
To take off my ribbons and veil
Sah dabei mich zaertlich an
Looking at me so tenderly
Ach, er war doch ein schoener, schoener Mann!  
Oh! He certainly was a beautiful, beautiful man

I have heard a few different performances of the song but I think the version by Serafin on the DVD that I have is as good as or better than any.  But one would expect that of her distinguished ancestry.  In saying that, however, I have just done what she obviously wants nobody to do.  She wants to make her mark in her own right without being forever indulgently treated because she is Harald's daughter.  But she should not worry. She is a genuine great talent in her own right.

But what the little boy playing cupid in that scene was all about I have no real idea. I think he was blowing a bird-call whistle as a warning to be cautious but who knows?  Or was it just an reminder  that we were talking about love in that scene?  I confess defeat.

Humour in the show:

The big explicit comedy scene was the Zwei Professoren. And part of the comedy in that for me was that the "bought" professors were only too real.  The global warming hoax has bought so many of them to this day.  plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  In action below:

But I learnt a good jocular insult from the "professors":  "You'll never get brain damage; There's nothing to damage!" There were lots of good laughs throughout that segment -- the obnoxious and larcenous queer guy on roller-skates, for instance -- but the Zwei Professoren episode was full of laughs from beginning to end.  I even enjoyed how they walked off the scene, apparently full of themselves! A good visual joke. And I enjoyed how they did babble at times.  Having worked in a Sociology Department for many years, I recognized it! Much mumbo jumbo there!  

And even the high heels on Prof. Wuermchen were not entirely unfamiliar. And the actual heels were red!  An allusion? -- to Christian Louboutin, to Papal footwear?

"Prof. Wuermchen" means Prof. "Little Worm"; and Prof "Sueffle" means "Little Boozer".  As "Muckenstruntz & Bamschabl", The two actors performed together often as a comedy act  -- on Austrian TV of the late C20 and early C21. "The two Ronnies" would be the nearest English equivalent. But I suspect the Austrians were funnier.  Anyway, the music they marched on to -- and then off to -- was very jolly.  They must have been  an interpolation into Zeller's original script -- but a very successful one.

And in the early part of the scene there was a play on words using the French Appelation controlee and the German word Apfel. And that little joke worked perfectly well in English translation -- because our historic links with German are still there. We are the other half of the Deutsches Volk. So Apfel in German is "apple" in English. 1500 years of living apart have not changed some things very much. Sadly, however, the audience did not get it. Though, from what I heard, one lady did.  They did however get a simpler joke about Bordeaux.

Another joke in the show concerned Peter Rosenstingl.  He was a conservative Austrian politician of the late 20th century who went into a business deal with his brother that lost a lot of money and left him with big debts.  He was also found to have misused public money to prop up the enterprise. So he shot off to Brazil to get away from all that.  But they got him back and prosecuted him. So "Stanislaus" used him as a byword for big and tragic debts.

Another contemporary reference was to Antal Festetics, a genuinely distinguished Hungarian biologist and prominent Greenie in Austria at the time the show was performed.  He was used in the show to as an example of a man who knows all about the natural world.  Had the subtitlers been on the ball, they might have substituted "David Attenborough" for him.

Another jocular touch was the pigeon loft, with mechanical pigeons, set on top of the "small pavilion". Someone went to the trouble of smearing the roof of the pavilion with quite realistic-looking pigeon excreta!

And the funniest line in the show?  "Come here my little piggy bank", IMHO.  It occurs when "Baron Weps" woos his rich wife-to-be.

And operettas do often refer to one another for humorous efect.  The allusion to the "small pavilion" in  Lustige Witwe was the example of that on this occasion.  It was not part of the original libretto, of course. We also got a small bit of Celeste Aida at one stage. And Burgenland was of course referred to. Moerbisch is in Burgenland.  And both Moerbish and Harald Serafin were referred to in the dialogue as well -- probably to good comic effect among the regular patrons.

And the mosquitoes were there!  Every show that I have seen from Moerbisch seems to have some reference to the Moerbisch mosquitoes in it.  On this occasion the ladies early in the show were swatting themselves rather a lot, though not saying why.

Translation notes

I have compared my translation of the song with what appears in the subtitles and I think my translation is better. I think they got a few  things wrong.  I actually understand why they translated Freier as they did.  It means something quite different in Yiddish and they wanted to distance themselves from that.  And they translated denn quite foolishly. I actually made the same mistake myself, initially.

I am actually a bit amazed at the subtitles.  The translators don't seem to know either German or English well.  I have already mentioned what I see as deficits in their translations from German but their grasp of English idiom also seems defective.  In the early scene where the hunters are told to scram, they are told to "Make yourself sparse", which is absurd.  "Make yourself scarce" is of course the required idiom.

And describing the hunted pig as "stamped" was dumb.  "Branded" was the required translation. But I noted that, for the Fuerstin,  Durchlaucht was translated as "Milady", which was rather more appropriate than the "Serene Highness" used in Zirkusprinzessin

And I had to laugh when I noted that the subtitle translators did not know the difference between "discreet" and "discrete" -- an easy one for those of us who learnt their Fowler at an early age.

And the translators do their best to describe what Gfrerer is doing when she speaks to "Stanislaus" "per du".  He is a Graf and she is a humble postal employee so that was very cheeky.  And it confused him because it upset the status relationships that really existed between them.  She was refusing to place herself lower than him, which confused him about who she really was.  But there is no equivalent of that stuff in English (mercifully) so you have to be familiar with some  European language to know what that is all about.

Other details

Further on the casting:  I thought that the birdman (Sebastian Reinthaller) was not well cast:  He seemed too young and small for the part.  He was shorter than just about everyone else in the show. But he had a great voice and performed with great energy so did justice to it in the end. 

I liked his haircut but that means nothing.  I liked Adolf Hitler's haircut too.  In both cases it was "short back & sides" -- the haircut I had for most of my childhood and which was universal in British lands until the "Beatles" upset the applecart.  After a lifetime of hair negligence I have reverted to that haircut in my declining years.  I am of course lucky to have hair at all at my age.

And the big conk on "Stanislaus" (Marc Clear) was very noticeable. I hoped at first that it was just stage makeup but I now think it was how he was born.  If it is natural he has done well to make a stage career for himself. Maybe rhinoplasty...  He is certainly a good and powerful singer, though. His singing in the castle garden when he accosted "Christel" (Gfrerer) was very powerful, and, dare I say it? -- clear.  I note that he has appeared at Moerbish subsequently as well.

A small point:  I would like to have heard something from the Tyrolean zithers but they were rather drowned out.  Harald Serafin should have done what people usually do with harps and harpsichords: Position mikes within inches of the strings.

And I was a bit grumpy to have the grandfather in the Nachtigall song portrayed as decrepit at age 70. I am 71 and I assure everybody that I can still walk tall and straight -- when I try!

And I think I should by now mention the bicycle fad that has long prevailed at Moerbisch.  Because it is a very big stage, bicycles seem to be regarded as a good way to get around it, anachronistic or not.  I think they  have been in every Moerbisch performance that I have seen. "Christel" arrived on stage on a bike on this occasion. The fancy tricycle was another version of it.  One does see some rather odd conveyances at Moerbisch so I suppose the trike was another version of that.  The audience seemed to be amused by it.

I must admit that I am rather critical of Harald Serafin for the instructions he gave to the many "extras".  He clearly told them to be as still as the grave.  It would have been nicer if they had been allowed to smile.

But it was a very light-hearted show  -- which I quite appreciated after just having watched the very dramatic Zirkusprenzessin.  A certain irony there, however.  Carl Zeller (the composer) did not have a very happy life. 

And the ending -- with both the old and the young couples united in satisfaction and happiness, was classic operetta -- although achieved in a rather Deus ex machina way.

Even in my dotage I am still something of a sponge for knowledge so I tend to watch the credits that roll on my screen at the end of a performance.  And one thing that I noted was that  part of the costumes for this show were borrowed from the Austrian Federal Theatre.  I did not know there was such a body so I clearly still have a lot to learn. But I guess all those wigs etc had to come from somewhere.

And being undoubtedly what in Australian slang is called a "woop" (even my mother called me that!  "Poorly dressed person" would be one translation of it) I have no right to comment on costumes but I nonetheless did rather like the splendid court dress of "Baron Weps". And the huge skirts and big hair I could tolerate. But Schellenbeger took that to a new height in 2013 Bettelstudent and that did rather bug me.

My liking for Austro/Hungarian operetta is undoubtedly eccentric (even "egg-headed") for an Australian but it remains popular in the German lands -- as the big and packed audiences you see at Moerbisch demonstrate. When the cameras cut to the audience of this show, Anne commented, "Not an empty seat".  Though you have to wonder whether the Staatsoper being in recess in July/August has something to do with that. The Moerbisch season runs from early July to late August.


The words of "Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol"

 Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol
In the Tyrol, when you give roses
Weiss man was das bedeuten soll:
everyone knows what it means:
Man schenkt die Rose nicht allein,
it’s not just the rose you’re giving,
Man gibt sich selber auch mit drein!
you give yourself with it!
Darf ich es wirklich so verstehen,
Can I take it to mean the same here?
Kann ich auf dieses Zeichen gehen,
Can I act on this sign?
Dann machst du wahrhaft selig mich,
It would make me blissfully happy
Schenkst mit der Rose du auch dich!
if, with a rose, you gave your own self.
Amsel und Star zieh’n jedes Jahr
Each year the blackbird and the starling
Nach ihrer Heimat wieder,
return to their home again,
Singen die alten Lieder.
they sing the old songs.
Hält mich das Glück hier jetzt zurück?
Am I kept here by happiness?
Wag’ es zu hoffen kaum,
I hardly dare to hope
Denn in mir klingts wie ein Traum:
as a dream chimes within me:
Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol…
In the Tyrol, when you give roses…

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