Wiener Blut -- a splendid farce

And a celebration of a great city

To Americans, a wiener is either a sausage or a private part of similar shape.  But in German neither Hamburgers nor Wieners are food items.  Both refer to the inhabitants of famous cities.  So Wiener Blut means "Vienna blood".  But what exactly that is we shall see.

In my well-spent youth in Sydney in the '70s I went to a lot of plays.  Sydney had a variety of them on at any one time and I took advantage of that -- seeing perhaps one play a week.  They weren't all good -- I walked out of a few -- but I enjoyed most of them, as did the ladies I took along.  Ladies LOVE going to plays. And there were among the plays I saw quite a few farces, including plays by that master of farce, Feydeau. And Wiener Blut is an excellent farce, worthy of Feydeau.  The show was written in 1899 and set in 1814.

Also in the early 70s, a lot of cinematic versions of operetta were made for German TV.  And the best of those are  now being released on DVD -- perhaps something to do with copyright. And a lot of the DVDs I have acquired are from that source.  An amusing consequence of that is that I see from time to time the same singers in different shows.  For me the '70s German operetta scene is still live. 

So the version of Wiener Blut that I have -- a 1971 production conducted by Kurt Graunke and directed by Hermann Lanske -- actually had three singers in it whose work I knew.  One of the reasons I bought that DVD was that it had the Austrian soprano Dagmar Koller in it, who is a genuinely lovely lady.  She is of my vintage but still survives. 

The point of it all

So let's look at the theme song which tells us what Das Wiener Blut is about.  The song itself defines such Blut as "Voller Kraft, Voller Glut! ... Was die Stadt Schönes hat, In dir ruht! Wiener Blut, Heisse Flut. (Roughly: "unique, full of fire, full of power, hot and flowing").  The idea is that the great city is embodied in its people. It basically means "high-spirited" -- bright and lively -- perhaps "gay" in the old meaning of that term -- and infidelity is accepted as part of that. If a man is not smitten by every beautiful woman he meets, he lacks Wiener Blut.  But operetta always has happy endings so in this case the Graf ends up falling in love with his wife! (As well he might!)

A wonderful farce. I am laughing as I write this.  But he only falls in love with his wife because his wife suddenly falls in love with him.  She had herself been before her marriage a gay and lively  Wiener ("Ich war ein echte Wiener Blut") and had thought that her husband lacked Wiener Blut -- until she saw and heard of his infidelities.  That convinced her that in Vienna he had become a real man by Vienna standards ("Aus dem soliden und strengen Mann wurde der flotteste Don Juan!  ... Sie wurden Mann von Welt").  So, as the wife, Ingeborg Hallstein was given a sophisticate's role.  And she conveys it with complete conviction and elegance.  It makes some sense that she wanted her man to be one who was desirable to other women.  See below:

So was there more than that with Wiener Blut?  Was it just a similar culture that Hallstein's character wanted?  Partly so, I think.  But Wien was at the time a great imperial city and civilizational centre so there was also there a longing for the high and sophisticated culture that existed in Wien.   At one stage Wien was undoubtedly the greatest city in the world since Constantinople/Byzantium.  To be and feel part of that was a great privilege.  And we see from the scenes of the ordinary people of the city at Hietzing that a love of their city included all orders of Viennese society.  They compared Wien to Heaven!

But other people esteem their city highly too.  We even have a rather good song of praise for Galveston!  And who can forget Elvis's "happy home" in Memphis, Tennessee?  London is a bit disappointing though. Such an amazing city seems to have produced only the Cockney song, "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner ..".  But nothing can compare with the frequent and brilliant songs of praise for Wien that occur throughout operetta.  And Wiener Blut is undoubtedly the leading example of that.

The casting

I did not think that Rene Kollo was well cast in Csardas Fuerstin  -- though he is undoubtedly a good and powerful singer -- but he suited his fickle part in Wiener Blut very well. As the Casanova he did not do any stern parts but when he was rumbled with his Geliebte in her floral and very modern underwear he managed to say "Ich auch" in a somewhat stern manner. And his surprised expressions when he encountered his seamstress Geliebte standing in for a Princess of Poland in the grand dance were spot on. The more I have listened to him, the more I appreciate his powerful and faultless tenor voice. And his diction is good too.  Regardless of the language of the song, operatic singing is often hard to follow, but Kollo's German is very clear.

But the real surprise for me  was German soprano Ingeborg Hallstein, of whom it has been said:  "Ingeborg Hallstein burst onto the scene in 1959 with an uncommonly sweet voice and beautiful face and figure, which immediately moved her front and center in German musical life."

There is a lot of her work available on CD -- for good reason -- but almost nothing on DVD.  But what a lady! An elegantly beautiful woman.  She conveyed eloquently the air of sophistication that her role as Graefin called for.  She really has the sort of face that would launch a thousand ships -- a face of both character and beauty. And she has the long neck that one normally finds only in beautiful Northern European women.  Virginia Woolf was another example. So Hallstein was a most convincing Graefin!

But is her beauty in part a function of stage makeup?  I don't discount that. On the few occasions that I have appeared on TV, I have been amazed about how the makeup artists were able to banish my facial spots.  But we do  get a lot of closeups in this show that clearly show Hallstein's stage makeup.  And it clearly just emphasizes already beautiful features.  

There is one thing that I am not sure that I should mention. Hallstein has some sort of mole on her lower face.  So why did not the makeup artists blot that out?   There was apparently in times past such a thing as a "beauty spot" and that idea still lives to some extent.  Don't ask me for the logic of it (if any) but some sort of facial blemish on a beautiful lady was held to be an enhancement rather than a blemish.  So Hallstein has it all.

KS Hallstein is a remarkable singer too.  She is known for her range and she does show a bit of it on a couple of occasions in this show.  It is not a big voice but it is probably just right for the ultimate lady that she is. Needless to say, she has long been recognized as Kammersängerin (KS).

If you want to really hear what she can do as a high coloratura soprano there is a 1965 B&W film clip here where she sings the haunting nightingale song by Franz Grothe from the 1941 German film "Die Schwedische Nachtigall".  Hallstein has been described as having crystal bells in her throat and that clip will tell you why.  (Lyrics for the nightingale song here).  In a sound-only file here you also hear her in high coloratura mode -- singing the wonderful An der schoenen blauen Donau, Austria's unofficial national anthem.  

The Donau (Danube) is shown in appropriate blue in the map below -- though I gather that it is rarely blue these days:


Hallstein was said in the 60s and 70s to be "die weltweit beste Königin der Nacht" (the world's best "Queen of the Night") and I can believe it. She is still alive and active on judging panels in her late 70s.  

Note: There is also a "Spanish" nightingale operetta, "Die Spanische Nachtigall" by Leo Fall. And also a Nachtigall song in Zeller's Vogelhaendler. You have to keep your nightingales straight.

And Hallstein's facial expressions and body language were brilliant too. She is a superb actress as well as a remarkable singer.  It seems to come naturally.  It probably does. She is as good as any Hollywood actress at living her part and better than most of them at subtlety of expression.  

An example of that which I really enjoyed was her very small but rightly contemptuous gesture of dismissal -- mainly just a tiny and momentary inclination of her head combined with a small "Oh!" -- when she first saw one of her rivals, little Helga. Her vocalization there was not even an Ach!.  She knew that she was miles ahead of that "rival".  And the scene where she asks the clumsy Prince to take her to Hietzing was brilliantly done.  I laugh every time I think of it.  It was almost an enchiridion of feminine wiles there.  She knew her power and even found it amusing.

And her expressions as she spoke with her flirtatious husband were also well done. She showed subtly that she did not believe a word of his attempted deceptions but was amused by them instead -- indulgent and quietly confident expressions.  She was aware of her high standing in Wiener society so was not easily abashed.  She has irrefragable dignity.

I have seen and heard other versions of the Wiener Blut song but I think Hallstein here is better than them all (see the clip above).  What a stunning woman!  The other women in the show are girls compared to her.  That clip may in fact get my vote for the most beautiful scene in operetta.  There are other strong candidates  -- such as Die ganze welt is Himmelblau with A.K. Wigger at Moerbisch in 2008 or Martina Serafin's in Als geblueht der Kirschenbaum in the Moerbisch performance of Vogelhaendler but  the emotion is so intense in the above scene that it certainly gets to me.

Not that I would say a critical word about the other two ladies in the show. Dagmar Koller once again came across as a lovely and lovable lady. Let me say that again: Despite what could have been a bitchy role, Dagmar Koller once again came across as a lovely and lovable lady.  She is a honey.  I suspect she would not accept casting any other way.  

And little Helga Papouschek as the servant's girlfriend was well cast. She has a certain prettiness but is no beauty -- a point made in the show when the two beautiful ladies (the Graefin and "Cagliari") agreed that they  could forgive the Graf that one.  She was in their view no threat to them. Wiener Blut!  

She has been described elsewhere as a "vielseitige Schauspielerin und Sängerin" (a many-sided actress and singer) and I can see that. She has a squeaky little voice but she gets her notes well enough.  She portrayed various moods very  well and looked right for her part.  She certainly showed various sides in this show.  And her role as a seamstress in a Polish hat standing in for a princess of Poland in the grand dance was one of the good jokes of the show.  And her  comment earlier on in the show that the overweight Polish princess might have been overdoing the cakes was as irreverent as it was apposite.

And we must not for a moment forget the character actors. Benno Kusche did his part as the confused Prince superbly well and Ferry Gruber as Josef the servant was very convincing.  He was very clever in fact.  He was as good a character actor as you could get and he certainly got the laughs, probably about half of them in fact.  There was brilliant acting throughout the show.

The costumes

A small note about riding habits:  I was much impressed with the riding habit worn by "Lisa" in Das Land des Laechelns but the outfit worn by Hallstein in this show was pretty good too.  I think that up until now I had only seen Englishwomen in riding gear.  Austrians do it infinitely better.  There is a low rez clip below that gives you an idea of Hallstein's outfit -- and also follows her into her visit to her old home at Döbling.  The beginning of the clip shows her actually riding a horse so the outfit was apparently practical.  She looks good most of the time but in her riding habit and riding hat she was really something  -- both while riding and after riding. 

Part of the attractiveness of the riding scene was the beautiful grounds through which she trots her horse. I gather that that scene was recorded in the grounds of the Palais Strattmann in Vienna.

I think the point of such an elaborate habit is that you could get off a horse and immediately be dressed for the best society.  I note that the lovely Dagmar Koller was also presented in a flowing riding habit in the vignettes of her pre-marital times in Csardasfuerstin

The golden garment with lots of ermine trim on the hood and sleeves that Hallstein wore to Hietzing also impressed me.  Not everyone could have worn such a garment effectively but on Hallstein it created a great image of privilege and luxury.  It complemented and framed her beauty.  A face framed in ermine certainly has a good start.  Dagmar Koller also wore a similar rather gorgeous flowing garment at Hietzing.

The garments both ladies wore were dominos, all-covering garments often worn to masked balls and the like. They are a way of hiding in plain sight and both ladies in this story were indeed trying to hide at Hietzing. There are some modern ladies' garments called that but they are totally out of touch with the late-19th-century original, with its hoods, big sleeves, fancy trims and the like.  Below is a picture of a lady wearing a pink domino at a performance of Heuberger's Opernball

And Hallstein looked so happy in that scene.  Good to see.  I suspect that she is basically a happy lady who suppressed her good humour only slightly in the scenes where she is dealing with the attempted deceptions of the Graf.

Perhaps the elaborate Fächer (hand-held fan) much used by Hallstein in the show deserves a mention.  It is very feathery and is obviously meant to be part of a lady's ensemble rather than merely utilitarian.  She certainly uses it expressively.


Interesting that Hallstein wore small stars in her hair for much of the time.  In operetta it is very common for the ladies to wear laurel wreaths  -- but not in this show:  Diamond stars as a hair adornment were invented by the rather tragic Empress Elizabeth of Austria around about 1860 so seeing them in this  show (set in 1814) is a bit anachronistic but certainly glamorous.  They do convey elegance.  Anne tells me that you can still buy in Vienna hair stars such as Hallstein wore.  So perhaps that is the practical reason why they were used.

It was Anne who told me about hair stars. I know nothing about the mysteries of ladies' hair, other than having a general view that more is better.  I have even bullied Anne into wearing her hair long, even though she is a lady of advanced years. I have of course scriptural support for my view of the matter (1 Corinthians 11:15) but even in the human race's oldest literary work, "The epic of Gilgamesh", we find a view that long hair is proper for women.

And I still have not figured out how Schellenberger in the one year (2004) had both very short hair (in Graefin Maritza) and very long and gorgeous hair (in Lustige Witwe).  Lustige Witwe  could have come first, of course, but as a "Daily Mail" reader I am aware that there are such things as hair extensions -- but I have no idea how that works at all.  But when Gilfry was fiddling with Schellenberger's hair in the Lippen  Schweigen scene I was mentally warning him to be careful of those extensions.  Fortunately, he was.

A few other details

Some of the jokes come very quickly and you have to be alert to get them.  One such was when Hallstein was offered a jumping jack but she declined to buy, saying as the seller walked away:  Ich hab' schon eine (I have already got one) -- meaning probably her husband. Another joke was the stern and prowling geheime Staatspolizist (secret policeman) at Hietzing in his brown hat. (OK.  He was just a Geheime Polizist.  We know who in history the Geheime Staatspolizei were, don't we?)

I was amused when the sausage king described Hallstein as "a dazzling piece of construction" and her rival as an "architectural masterpiece".  We see architectural allusions to the looks of a lady in other operettas too, notably Kalman's Graefin Maritza and Lehar's Die lustige Witwe.

And I also wonder a little what the sausage king's sausages were like.  As a sausage devotee I entirely agree with the prominence they were given in the show.  My devotion to sausages could make me a good German.  A good sausage is a work of art!

When the Graf is trying to seduce the wily seamstress with invocations of Stoss an (drink up), he orders Wiener Wein to help the proceedings.  I wonder what the wine was?  The most popular Austrian wine these days seems to be Grüner Veltliner, which is a rather undistinguished wine IMHO -- reminiscent of an Australian Hunter Valley  Semillion. Maybe he had in mind Gemischter Satz, which would have been around in the early 19th century.  

Gemischter Satz is in fact grown and produced in Vienna itself. So it really is a Wiener Wein. Vienna actually has its own vineyards on the outskirts of the city. Austria as a whole is a significant wine-producing region.  It exports to Germany. I noticed at the big party in Hietzing that everyone seemed to be drinking wine, not beer.  Not a North/South difference this time, I think.  Maybe just a Wiener difference?  

We saw a North/South difference when the (presumably) Northern Prince told the (Southern) sausage king to speak German, remarking that the sausage king's German sounded like Tibetan.  In good Southern style, the sausage king was not at all abashed and just carried on. There was rather a lot of commentary about Wiener speech being "different" and I gather that there are still such differences.

I am no authority on anything German and I know only the basics about North/South differences but I noted that the sausage king pronounced junge Leute as junge Leiter and there is no doubt that could cause amazement or amusement.

Another detail of the show that interested me was the novels the Graefin took out of her bookcase.  Because I had never heard of him I looked up Christoph Martin Wieland.  He was apparently a rather light novelist, best known for translating Shakespeare into German.

Realism and operetta have a limited relationship -- though I don't like deliberate anachronism.  So I cannot be censorious about a very curious thing about the streets of Vienna that we see in this  show: The streets were sparkling clean.  But the streets of of a great city in the 19th century would have been much used by horses and various horse-drawn conveyances.  And what does that produce?  Huge amounts of horse-manure and horse-pee in the streets.  The real-life streets of Vienna at that time would have stunk to high heaven and soiled anybody who walked them. Sorry for that totally inappropriate burst of realism.

The wrap-up

As endings go, this has to be the supreme operetta -- with FOUR happy couples at the end of it: All waltzing and singing Das Wiener Blut of course. Superb, superb! (As the  French Vicomte said in  Lustige Witwe when he heard that the widow was worth 500 million francs). Even the sausage king finds his match. 

It's hard to believe that the show was initially a flop.  Bizet died thinking "Carmen" was a failure too. The first producer of Wiener Blut was bankrupted by its failure and shot himself!  A terrible contrast between reality and fantasy. 

And the praise of Vienna as being unique and happy is of course common in operetta. One thinks of the joy in the two second-string stars of Zirkusprinzessin when they discover in cold St. Petersburg that they are both from warm Wien.  And the Princess in Vogelhaendler at her first appearance in that play is also proud to proclaim that she is a gay Wiener.  But a heterosexual one, of course.

And, as usual in operetta, the waltz (Der Walzer in German) is both much practiced and warmly praised.  And something I noticed at the end of one of the waltzes was that the ladies did a low curtsey to their men at the end of the dance.  I am aware that there can still at formal balls be a certain amount of bowing and curtseying at the beginning of a dance but I had not seen it as the conclusion of a dance.  Is that still widely practiced?  I have no idea.  But someone should bring it back routinely.  It would make the feminists burst into flames!

Some reflections

And an inevitable reflection that Wiener Blut inspires is how we mere mortals live up to the splendid life in Wien that it portrays.  I am sure I score a zero on glamour but, although I am no Wiener, the fact that I have been married four times to four fine women must testify to some sort of "Blut"!

But have I had in my life an ultimate lady such as Hallstein?  A lady who is beautiful, smart, confident, socially acclaimed, very musical and kind?  And have I walked through a crowded room with the lady to see her greeted with pleasure by many? (As Hallstein did with Kollo in the grand ball)?  I have done that. And I treasure the experience.  She may even read this.  Unlike Hallstein, she does not have crystal bells in her throat but I think we can both overlook that.  A real lady is a great pleasure to us mere men.

And what is the role of culture in male/female relationships?  With the lady I mentioned above  it was  very important.  She once said to me:  "I could forgive you anything because of the way you feel about music".  But there is more to it than that.  

The lady in my life these days is in fact a good soprano but that is rather incidental -- though we do sing some of the great old Protestant hymns together at times!  What she and I have in common is small-town Protestant Queensland culture.  We come from very similar environments. When I speak broad Australian she understands. We sound right to one-another.  It really pleases me to use traditional Australian expressions.

The great aria

Here it is in full:

Das Wiener Blut! 

Wiener Blut!
Wiener Blut! 
Eig'ner Saft 
Voller Kraft, 
Voller Glut! 

Du erhebst, 
Du belebst 
Unsern Mut! 

Wiener Blut! 
Wiener Blut! 
Was die Stadt 
Schönes hat, 
In dir ruht! 

Wiener Blut, 
Heisse Flut 
Gilt das Wort: 
Wiener Blut! 

I know the literal meaning of all the words but it would be maddening to try to translate it adequately so I am not going to try.  Someone bolder than I am has however subtitled it  here in an old performance by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.  Rather sad that the undoubtedly distinguished Schwarzkopf is roughly twice as wide as Hallstein.

Librettos are online here and here but performances of course differ so neither  corresponds exactly to the DVD performance
Perhaps I should in closing pay tribute the librettists, Victor Léon and Leo Stein. The fun was entirely their work.  A later libretto for which Léon and Stein were responsible was that of Lehár's highly successful "The Merry Widow". Strauss was in his last days when this show was created and, although he approved of the project, he did not specifically compose any music for it, although many of his earlier compositions were incorporated, as we can hear. He was mostly content to delegate the musical arrangements to Adolf Müller. You have to get your Adolfs right!  -- JR

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