Der Opernball by Heuberger

Perfect Viennese froth and bubble!  A perfect farce!  Nothing serious from beginning to end. Full of laughs.  A most enjoyable show.  It sometimes takes a bit to get "into" an operetta but this was all in the open from beginning to end. It is one of those operettas that one can watch time and time again without it palling. It was, of course, all about flirtation and deception, as a farce usually is.

The DVD I have records a "Made for TV" show of 1970 from Munich.  Libretto by Victor Leon and Heinrich von Waldberg; Directed by Willy Mattes; Music by Richard Heuberger, an Austrian.  The show was an instant hit at its first performance in 1898, getting rapturous applause.  And I fully understand why.

Movie versions of books and plays often stray a fair bit from the original and this one did too.  There is also a 1964 B&W version of the show featuring Ingeborg Hallstein and Peter Alexander which is  now known only from a clip from the famous Chambre séparée scene, and it too seems to have strayed off in yet a different direction.  But both meanders were successful and amusing so that is what matters.

Incidentally, I read that Heuberger spent a long time thinking about his composition of the Chambre Séparée scene but then sat down and wrote the entire duet in one afternoon.

The cast

I was pleased to see two familiar faces in the show:  Harald Serafin and Tatjana Iwanow.  I would not have recognized Serafin though. I had known him only in his incarnation as Intendant at Moerbisch -- mostly when he was in his '70s.  But in this show he was around 35.  Quite a shock to see how much difference age can make. I actually think he was more amusing in his '70s  -- though he was very good in this show. I was also interested to see that he was quite tall compared to the other actors in the show.

Ancestrally, he is half North German and half Italian so it was a bit amusing to see him cast as an Englishman in this show.

I first saw Tatjana Iwanow in Dollarprinzessin, recorded in 1971.  In both shows she played most convincingly a very cynical and scheming older woman.  She could bark orders well too, as when she shouted Setzen! at the maid "Hortense".  She played such an evil role that one could miss that she was actually quite good-looking however:  A fine figure of a woman with brilliant blue eyes.

The maid was played by Christiane Schröder.  A Berliner with grey eyes and fair skin, she looked rather English to me. She was rather short and also slightly built -- "only a slip of a girl", as the Irish say.  When Serafin grabbed her to dance with her at one stage, he looked like a monster beside her.  She was thrown around rather like a rag doll on a couple of occasions, actually.

Schröder had a sad life.  She was born in 1942, had considerable success in the theatre and in films but became depressed and at age 38 jumped off the Golden Gate bridge to her death. She was a dear little thing with real talent as a singer so I am sad that life turned out so badly and ended so soon for her. She did at one  stage marry so one hopes that gave her some of life's rewards for a time.

I am putting up below a picture of her with "Henri", her Naval cadet boyfriend, played by Uwe Friedrichsen, a Saxon, who is now in his 80s and well known as a character actor on German TV.  Something he did well was (blue) eyes opened very wide in a portrayal of surprise on various occasions.  All the color pictures of him online are in elderly roles so this is the first pic put online of him as a young man.  Google has picked it up  but there are so many pix of Friedrichsen online that you have to be an experienced or very patient Googler to find it

His part was originally written as a trouser role so I am profoundly glad that the producers of this show did not feel obliged to follow that obsolete fashion.  I hate that custom.

And I must mention the two ladies who were testing out their husbands.  Hélène Mané as "Angele" and Maria Tiboldi as "Marguerite" were both very pretty ladies who also sang well, the brown-eyed Hélène Mané with the big smile particularly.  She was elsewhere known for singing in Bach cantatas. I thought she looked either Italian or Southern French so I was not surprised to read the following puff about her:

"Hélène Mané comes from a French-Italian family of singers, her coloratura is known in all continents and she has guest-appeared in operas from Leningrad to Lisbon. Her repertoire is mostly Italian."

She seemed a nice lady anyway. At least one publicist saw her as the leading attraction in this show so the puff was perhaps not out of bounds.  She certainly got some good arias to sing and sang them well.

The Hungarian Maria Tiboldi was 31 at the time of the show but looked very young -- thanks, no doubt, to some combination of good skin and stage makeup.  She had a very pleasant rather low-pitched speaking voice.  A soprano with a low-pitched speaking voice seems rather mad but it is not uncommon in my experience.

The three women of the show, Tiboldi, Mané and Schröder

And I enjoyed the expressions of the Chambre séparée waiter.  Very droll and world-weary beneath the formality. He actually had a good racket going.  And it was one of the good laughs when Friedrichsen claimed to be aflame with passion for "Hortense".  The waiter was nearby at that point and, in an entirely understandable way, he rolled his eyes on hearing that! He was also amusing earlier on in that scene when "Hortense" urged Geduld (patience ) on her admirer.

And I did enjoy Heinz Erhardt as "Caesare-Aristide", the scandal-sheet proprietor  It was a comic role and he played it very well. The episode where his escort ordered a huge and expensive dinner  at his expense was utterly corny but so well-done as to be amusing anyhow. I still laugh when I think of it.  No wonder Erhardt was a noted comic.  And his wild dancing was a caricature of dancing. A great laugh.  He was trying to impress the low-class "Feodora" with his youthfulness.

He is just one of those naturally funny men like John Cleese or Barry Humphries.  He comes across as absurd from the outset.  He was a marvellous asset to the show. Some of the jokes involving him are in that rare category of jokes that you laugh at every time even if you have heard them many times before.

But I was surprised at the scene where "Hortense" was talking with her friend, the chambermaid at the "Ritz".  The chambermaid was clearly half Negro. That really stood out beside the very fair Berliner. Was political correctness already around in 1970?  Perhaps. Viennese operettas are usually as all-white as Russian ballet.  On second thoughts, it can't have been political correctness -- as the black lady was cast in a lowly servant role. So it was actually that naughty "stereotyping"!

Operetta normally has a clear leading lady and leading man but that was not at all clear in this case.  I guess that Serafin was  the leading man but who was the leading lady?  I would have to nominate "Hortense", even though she is clearly from the "second string" story.  For comparison: In Graefin Mariza at Moerbisch, I thought that Marco Kathol was the outstanding male figure too, despite being second string.

The action

Both Mané ("Angele") and Christiane Schröder ("Hortense") sang the Chambre séparée song very well but the singer who sang it best on this occasion was, in my view, Schröder, playing the little maid "Hortense".  She put out a few coloratura  trills at times throughout the show, so was no mean singer.

Having said that the show was a classical farce, I don't think I really need to say any more about the plot. It was to a considerable extent a re-run of the plot in Fledermaus,  albeit with two deceived men instead of one.

There were lots of funny bits but one that stays with me is  when the journalist asks the Englishman's wife what he had to give her to get a kiss.  She replies:  "chloroform".  What a put-down! Chloroform is a surgical anaesthetic.

As is common in operetta, there are fleeting jokes, jokes that fly by you in a couple of seconds which you may or may not "get".  One such was when "Georges" the journalist gets his invitation.  The other two men make fools of themselves when they get their invitations but "Georges" does not.  On hearing that his letter is from the Ritz, he immediately SNIFFS it.  And on detecting perfume rightly assumes that he will be busy later that day.  He has obviously had assignations with ladies at the Ritz before.  The maid reads him well, however.

Another fleeting event was when the maid introduces the low-class "Feodora".  I can't really isolate how she does it -- curtseying with upturned eyes and a smile maybe -- but she does display amused contempt for Feodora.  A Parisian maid may not be high up but is still a respectable somebody -- certainly above the hoi polloi in social status.

Another fast-moving joke lasting only a few seconds was towards the end of the show when the plebeian "Feodora" was suggested by the clueless "Caesare-Aristide" as the new chambermaid, that was generally accepted but Serafin quickly slipped her some "silence-money", which she promptly and wisely tucked into her bra.

Another thing that you had to be attentive to get was when the naval cadet was kissing the hand of the English lady.  His inamorata, "Hortense", gives him in passing a quick thump  on the shoulder while he was doing that, producing an "ouch" from him.  The lady thought it was a comment on her so he  had to improvise quickly to get out of the situation. He didn't actually say "ouch", however.  That was as the subtitles rendered it.  He said something like "auer", which is very much like what some English-speakers would say

I was also amused when the cadet did not stay restrained for long when he got his lady into the Chambre separee.  After drinking some champagne with her, he demanded that she get it all off -- domino, dress and all.  Navy directness, I guess.

A small bonus in the show which I enjoyed was in the first dancing scene.  It included a tall thin male dancer with a big conk in black garb and a top hat who reminded me powerfully of John Cleese doing "silly walks".  Not sure it was intentional but it was amusing. He actually did well to leap about so much.  At one stage he took his hat off and we could see a bald spot in his hair.  So he was no spring chicken.

I was surprised that the "Englishman" (Serafin) was portrayed as making a social class mistake.  Social class is pretty influential in Germany but to this day it is even more so in England.  An  educated Englishman would NEVER make a class mistake as gross as that portrayed.  Heuberger must not have known the English well. There were actually several points in the show where the English were mocked. Serafin's mistake was inviting the loud and brassy "sister" of a Paris cafe proprietor (undoubtedly a rather "available" lady) to a formal middle-class dinner.  It at least reduced the tension that she arrived late.

Her gaffes were epic:  Mistaking In flagrante as a place in Italy and not at all knowing what a Tintoretto was.  But she was indulged.

Like most Australians, I have no time for social class myself but it is a central concept in sociology, which I taught for a number of years.  I even have a published  academic journal article on the subject. See also here. So maybe I know something about it anyway.

And another social class oddity was that "Hortense" had a rather familiar relationship with the family who employed her.  I suppose that master/servant relationships do differ and this one was simply towards one end of the spectrum. The maid had an out-of-class role in Fledermaus too, particularly in the recent Moerbisch version.

And when the servant "borrowed" from her mistress a garment to wear to the ball, that was, of course, another re-run of Fledermaus.

And the show ends up in classical operetta style with lots of laughs.  The scene of three men marching up together to confront  a line of three ladies was a great comic invention. But all three couples were happily reunited. After all the dramas, they end up flying into one-another's arms:  How it should be but not always so in real life.

I should mention that the show was presented as a Rahmenerzaehlung -- a story within a story.  The "outer" and quite minor story was of Tolouse Lautrec telling what happened at the Parisian opera ball to his nice-looking young red-headed model. It was quite a nice little story but quite tangential to the whole.  I suppose it was a way of getting a narrator on stage.  Narrators are not common in shows these days but they have their uses.

The bit I liked about that story was when the model imagined the fallout from the ball. She saw the galumphing Caesare-Aristide as triumphant because of the lies that "Feodora" told about his performance in the Chambre Séparée. Crazy!

The model

Four good scenes, Serafin discovering the Parisian ladies in the first one.  Some good shots of Iwanowa in the second one. And the Chambre séparée song in the final one.  The lady in sky-blue is the maid "Hortense"

Putting up film clips one after another does seem to get YouTube muddled rather often but let me try it. I try below to put up the 1964 clip of the  Chambre séparée scene -- with Peter Alexander and the ultra-feminine Ingeborg Hallstein.  I like the voices better there. If it doesn't come up, it is here:

Note the tiny gesture she uses to tell her escort to blow out the candles. Hallstein is good at tiny but expressive gestures.  She really is the ultimate female.

Other details

At the risk of exposing myself as a naif in these matters, I was rather surprised at the continual rain of confetti (if that is what it was) at the Paris opera ball. In the days of my youth, I went to quite a few balls at Brisbane's much acclaimed but now lost "Cloudland" ballroom but I never encountered anything like that. It has been said that a significant fraction of Brisbane's population was conceived in the "Cloudland" carpark so there is no doubt that it was a good ballroom. I just have memories of some lovely ladies at that time. The only one whose name I can remember is Zita Trevethan

It would be rather silly of me to try to explain all the jokes and allusions in the show -- so I won't try  -- but but perhaps I should explain what the "three sacred things" were that Paris and Vienna were said to have.  Paris had Napoleon Bonaparte, the Red Mill (Moulin Rouge) cabaret and the opera ball.  Vienna had Sissi, the Prater and their Opernball.  "Sissi" was the late, admired, and still commemorated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. There is to this day a museum devoted to her in Vienna.  And the Prater is a large public park which includes the oldest amusement park in the world -- plus many other attractions.

And what was the bergère that Serafin was asked to inspect? A bergère is basically a big comfortable French armchair with an upholstered back and armrests.  In this case, however, it would have been a fancy and upholstered chair for two. You see one in the clip with Hallstein above

I thought I might also say a word on what a "Domino" is when it comes to ladies' clothing. They are basically a 19th century phenomenon.  They were all-covering garments often worn to masked balls and the like. They are a way of hiding in plain sight, so were well adapted to the story in this show.  As you can see from the picture of "Hortense" below, they had hoods and big sleeve and usually had fancy trims. They are usually in mostly dark colors so in this show the pinkness stood in for fancy trims and helped them to be easily identified by the adventure-seeking males.  The inside of the hoods, however, was black.

And the journalist's half-remembered dream from the future was a bit of a challenge.  Who were "Birdstein" and "Caravan", for instance"?  Fairly easy: "Bernstein" and "Karajan".  But the others were harder.  "Nelly" was presumably Grace Kelly and "Pallas" was "Maria Callas", but that is as far as I can confidently go.  Was one of the others Jacqueline du Pré?  Maybe. I have her wonderful recording of the Elgar cello concerto.

The massive hair arrangements that the ladies wore had a certain attractiveness.  Like the holy apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11), I like a lot of hair on the head of a lady.  But they were rather obviously wigs on this occasion so I could have done without that.  The wigs really sprouted when they went to the ball. Only "Hortense" seemed to be showing her own hair throughout.


One word that was wisely left untranslated in the generally excellent subtitles was "Kobold".  "The fairies" or "gremlins" would work as translations  in some contexts but basically it is a German myth that has no exact translation.  Kobolds were mischievous spirits with no clear equivalent in the English-speaking world.

An odd thing about German was that the pink dominoes were variously described as "nelke" or "rosa".  Both are names of flowers in German.  There is no dedicated word for "pink" in German as there is in English.  I gather that "rosa" is the most common translation of "pink" but roses come in a many colors -- as any Texan will tell you.

I wonder a little why Chambre Séparée is used in the show when perfectly good German alternatives would seem to be available -- Privatzimmer, Privatkammer and even Privatgemach.  I guess that use of French is seen as more sophisticated.  There is an impression of the French to that effect in the English-speaking world too. If sexual promiscuity equates to sophistication, I guess the impression is an accurate one. An amusing thing is that the expression as a whole is German rather than French.  The French say "cabinet particulier".  Boringly "private room" in English, of course.

As Obama might say, let me make that perfectly clear:  Although it uses French words, Chambre Séparée is actually a German expression.

And a VERY small point that pleased me:  I noticed that in the Ueberall song "Angele" referred to Naples as "Neapel". Most likely that is normal German practice but it is quite sophisticated. In Tuscan Italian the city is Napoli.  But  "Neapel" is how Neapolitanians refer to their city.  And what a marvellous example of continuity that is. When the Greeks founded the city around 2,800 years ago they called it "Neapolis" -- meaning "New city". And "Neapel" is very close to that ancient Greek name: Marvellous.  Memory preserved over an amazing stretch of time.

Seeing it is such a big feature of the show, I thought I might give below one version of the words of the Im Chambre Séparée song, followed by my translation of it into English.

Geh'n wir in's chambre séparée
Let's go into the private room
Ach, zu dem süssen tete a tete,
Oh! for the sweet head to head
dort beim Champagner und beim Souper
There with champagne and supper
man alles sich leichter gesteht!
One more easily confesses everything

Ach, kommen Sie, mein Herr,
O come my sir
Dass ich gestehe,
 That I may confess,
was längst für Sie ich schon empfinde.
What I have long felt for you
So kommen Sie zu Tête à tête
So come to the head to head
Dass ich gestehe; ja, gestehe,
That I may confess, yes confess
Was längst; ja, längst
What for a long time, yes a long time
Für sie ich, ja, empfinde.
What I have felt for you

Geh'n wir in's chambre séparée
Let's go into the private room
Ach, zu dem süssen tete a tete,
Oh! for the sweet head to head
dort beim Champagner und beim Souper
There with champagne and supper
man alles sich leichter gesteht!
One more easily confesses everything

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