This is a recording of a performance of "Simplicius" in front of a live audience at the Zurich Opera House in 2000. Whatever reservations one may feel about it - and I feel quite a few - its release is very much to be welcomed. Johann Strauss II is generally recognised to be one of the very greatest operetta composers, yet the majority of his operettas have never been recorded. This is an absurd situation, and I thank Zurich Opera House for giving me a chance to make the acquaintance of one of the less well-known.
"Simplicius" (1887) resembles in many respects "Der Zigeunerbaron" (1885). Its score it of a similarly high standard (though without the distinctive Magyar colour of its predecessor). There are also parallels between characters and dramatic situations. Most of the music is unlikely to be familiar even to Strauss enthusiasts however. That said, anyone who knows the "Donauweibchen" Waltz will recognise a number of melodies, and the main tenor solo was later interpolated into Korngold's version of "Eine Nacht in Venedig".
The unfamiliarity of the music means that attention initially tends to focus more on the plot and staging. The DVD includes much information - displayed during the overture and entr'actes - to help the viewer understand what is going on. I suppose it is useful, but it does rule out any dramatic revelations. Unlike a theatre audience, we know from the start how Simplicius and his father are related to some of the other characters, though the libretto does not disclose this until the last act.
This production of Simplicius is an example of that rather unhappy modern sub-genre: opera-house operetta - i.e., operetta staged and performed by people more accustomed to opera. The result is predictable. As a performance of the musical score, it is very proficient; as a staging of operetta, it is decidedly uncomfortable.
To try and draw a sharp dividing line between opera and operetta would be impossible and pointless, yet, though so similar, they are not the same. Operetta - even of the more substantial type, like Simplicius - requires its own characteristic production-style. As drama, it is self-consciously artificial; it stands half-outside itself; it does not take its own plots seriously. To be successful on stage, therefore, operetta calls for comedy acting skills. Some opera singers possess these; most do not (and why should they?).
This fact is very much apparent here. At one extreme stands the soprano Martina Jankova in the role of Tilly. She seems absolutely at home in operetta, captures exactly the right tone, and is a pleasure to watch (as well as to hear). She comes from the Czech Republic, where the performance tradition of operetta survives rather better than in western Europe. Piotr Beczala (Arnim), a tenor from Poland, also has the operetta touch. At the other extreme, Michael Volle, as the hermit, could hardly appear more earnest if he were appearing in Wagner's "Götterdämmerung". That said, he possibly gets away with it, as the hermit is a comparatively serious character. More problematic is the role of Melchior, the astrologer, which cries out for a lively comedian. Oliver Widmer tries his best, I think, but it surely isn't his line. The title role in "Simplicius" is a tricky one: he is meant to be a young man who has been brought up in a forest in complete isolation from normal society (almost a 'feral child'). Martin Zysset does convey his childlike innocence, but he fails to realise that childlike mischief is also a key component of the character. Many of the jokes in the spoken dialogue pass unnoticed by the audience, as the actors fail to point them.
If the casting is only 'good in parts', the direction and staging is often downright off-putting. This is obviously quite deliberate. I deduce that one major difficulty about "Simplicius" - in the eyes of director David Pountney - was its light-hearted attitude to war. It is set in Germany during the Thirty Years' War - a ghastly conflict, by any standard - but perhaps the most catchy number in the show is a jolly march whose words suggest that, if you haven't taken part in a cavalry charge, you've never lived. Arnim sings a song equally cheerful about exchanging his university studies for military service. "Simplicius" is not unique in this respect; I remember being surprised on first discovering how militaristic some of the original German lyrics of "Der Zigeunerbaron" are (compared with the English versions). It would nevertheless be wrong to describe either operetta as pro-war; other songs and remarks subvert the notion that war is a merry adventure. However, German-language operetta of the 1880s undeniably does include moments of militaristic and nationalistic sentiment (and these are not all instantly given an ironic twist, as in the contemporary works of Gilbert and Sullivan). Pountney is very anxious to underline the fact that this sort of thing is not acceptable nowadays. (To get the idea, imagine a junior-school teacher saying, 'Tut-tut! After two worlds wars, we know better than to say things like that, don't we, children?') He thinks it necessary to remind us repeatedly that war is really very nasty. Hence the chorus of soldiers and camp-followers is ragged and dirty. A troupe of Swedish dancing girls in Act III is replaced by a group of exhausted and starving juvenile prisoners-of-war (though, incongruously, they sing the same comic ditty). At the end of Act II, when Simplicius waves the Habsburg flag and everyone proclaims 'God with us for Kaiser and Fatherland!', we are simultaneously confronted with the ugly face of war - a giant mask with flattened nose and bloody teeth - and given a dose of fire and mayhem. The principal feature of the set in Act III is a gibbet with a dozen rotting corpses. I think we get the message. It is rather as if a production of "The Mikado" felt the need to stress that capital punishment isn't really funny at all.
The general trend of this production is thus to emphasise the gloomier aspects of the libretto. The opening scenes are so gloomy indeed that Simplicius' first waltz song sounds completely out of place. Like a perverse Mary Poppins, our governessy director works on the assumption that opera-house audiences require a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down. The musical gaiety of operetta is only permissible in the opera-house, it seems, if balanced by some visual misery. The prevailing colours are grey and rust-red, and the lighting is subdued (except down-stage). Having purged the piece of much of its irresponsible lightness of heart, Pountney struggles to restore some vitality to it by injecting a dose of surrealism: enormous military boots are a feature. (The General stands in one throughout the second act). There is a good deal of fussy stage business with ropes and conical platforms (the characters step from one to another, which very thoroughly distracts from the main love-duet in Act II). All of this extraneous embellishment is suggestive of a director without much faith in his material.
Indeed, Viktor Leon's libretto seems to be largely forgotten in the last quarter-hour, when the impetus of the plot (never very strong admittedly) is entirely dissipated. We have already had two numbers in succession without any dramatic relevance, but the director still sees fit to interpolate the entire "Donauweibchen" waltz: a number of seventeenth-century ladies and gentlemen dance about in a rain-storm and strip to their underwear (all underneath those rotting corpses). A strange decision, this.
The applause from the audience at the end is no more than polite. And no wonder. Fortunately, on subsequent viewings of the DVD, Strauss's splendid music comes to the fore, as the listener assimilates it. Lacking the genuine spirit of operetta in so many respects, this is indeed a production much better heard than seen.