Wow ! Les Trois Valses comme il faut in Liège
Laurence Janot (Fanny Grandpré) and Jean-Baptiste Marcenac (Octave de Chalencey)
For the year’s end the Walloon Opera always offers some lighter fare. A few years ago we saw a very fine La Périchole and then the way was free for some bad American musicals like last year’s Sugar (= Some like it hot). This reviewer who rates Lehar, Kalman, Rodgers and Kern almost as high as any member of the Holy Grail of opera composers was therefore more than happy that Liège offered some Oscar Straus. Not that this Straus (with one “s” as he dropped the second “s” in his surname for fear people would think he was a member of the dynasty) composed a neglected or unforgettable masterpiece with his Les Trois Valses. Originally the operetta was created at Zürich as Drei Walzer in 1935. Composer and librettists had a nice idea for a quick buck. It starts as the story of a dancer and a noble in the France of Napoleon III. To save his military career she leaves him and Paris. In the second act her daughter (a famous chansonnière) and his son meet thirty years later, fall in love but due to a misunderstanding separate. Once more thirty years later granddaughter (famous movie star) and grandson (assurance seller) meet and this time everything works out for the best. Straus arranged music by Johan Strauss-père for the first act, dipped into Strauss-son’s compositions for the second act and composed an original score for the last act. By 1935 however classical operetta was already moribund. The continuing success of Lehar’s last tragic works has led us to believe that Land des Lächelns, Friederike, Zarewitch, Schön ist die Welt and Giuditta were somewhat typical but they definitely were not. On the contrary, only Lehar’s stupendous melodic gifts succeeded in making a success out of them. By that time movies were all around and theatres were looking for spectacular countermoves. Salaries and costs were raising, so were the numbers of spectators needed to pay for all that jazz. More people meant more popular features and therefore music adapted to the lowest common denominator. It was the birth of the spectacular revue operetta whereby theatrical effects were often more important than musical substance (exactly the same happened with the classical American musical). The most important role shifted from the composer to the producer who found the money, engaged a composer and a librettist and added or subtracted songs by other people if he found the music too sophisticated, with too little hit-quality. The best example of is the perennial Im Weissen Rössl (White Horse Inn), nominally by Ralph Benatzky but with most of the hits by other composers.
This was what more or less happened with Drei Walzer. The extremely popular French soubrette Yvonne Printemps saw a performance of the original, had Straus play the score for her and asked the boss of the Bouffes Parisiens for his opinion. The man was flabbergasted. This was a very traditional operetta which would need a good tenor who would drown Madame Printemps. He had a better idea. He retained only a few bits of the music of father and son Strauss, gave all the tenor’s music to Printemps as well and made the hero a speaking role he could cast with the young French actor Pierre Fresnay (later on best known for his fine acting in Monsieur Vincent). Straus’ score for the third act was strewn over the whole operetta so that musical content is somewhat thin. But a smashing success it was. London and Broadway producers took notice, compared the original with the new French version and went for the last one of course. For more than sixty years this French version has held its own in all French speaking countries while the original has completely disappeared and it is no co-incidence that only the French version was recorded complete.
So what did the Liège production look like ? Its director was Jean-Louis Grinda, general manager of the Walloon Opera. Grinda simply went the same way he had gone with his production of La Périchole. He respected the ideas of the original authors and stuck to 1867, 1900 and 1937 as dates for his three acts. So no unnecessarily updating which would have somewhat clashed with the music. He clearly believed in the story and didn’t use it to ridicule it or to give it three layers. Therefore the performance took flight and one could believe in the characters; always difficult in an operetta with such an enormous amount of co-incidence. Though there has to be a comic relief in it, it was not searched in a vulgar or overblown way. The last act was a wonderful smile upon the way movies adapt a story to suit their commercial needs. The two youngsters are supposed to act in a movie about the tragic love of their grandparents and one couldn’t help laughing at the movie clichés that were performed while one had seen the simple truths of life in act one. Grinda was of course helped by the spectacular, rich and costly demands of the opérette-revue: every act had three new and fine settings (Dominique Pichou was the designer and the fine costumes were drawn by Danièle Barraud) so that the eye had always something new and fine to look at. Casting such operetta’s nowadays is a Herculean task: the two main parts are always played by the two same actors but there are 27 other roles as well. Of course this can only be done by assigning several roles to the same actor but with the aid of a new costume, a hairdo and some change of voice 12 actors took on the task.
French Laurence Janot sang and acted the female lead and she took our breath away when she did quite a lot of fine high class dancing herself in the first act till it dawned upon us that she was a former ballerina. Though she is over forty she succeeded exemplary well in her three roles and she has a nice and warm lyric soprano with probably more decibels than Madame Printemps ever had. Her partner Jean Baptiste Marcenac (speaking role) proved to be as excellent in the many serious as in the comic moments. All other singers performed their roles with enthusiasm and I even noticed the return of former fort tenor André Jobin (son of Raoul) in three bit parts. I was struck by one painful fact. The not so young public is clearly not accustomed any more with the genre. It has been educated far too long (all over the world) with a notion that music theatre is art, not fun and one shouldn’t show too much enjoyment. Fifty years ago each musical number would have been applauded and the temperature would have risen far more quickly while now most of the two first acts went in silence. By the last and best act the public had finally understood that one could freely laugh, cheer and applaud.
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Trois Valses at Théâtre Royal de Liège
Wow ! Les Trois Valses comme il faut in Liège