At the London premiere of film 2001, director Stanley Kubrick revealed his daring use of the Blue Danube Waltz for the dawning of space technology.
It’s hard to ignore those visuals, but on Sunday when the Okanagan Symphony presented a glorious Viennese concert, Blue Danube reasserted its reputation as Austria’s unofficial national anthem.
Soloists from the UBC Opera Ensemble brought a rare treat to a packed house, performing excerpts from famous operettas of Vienna’s illustrious past, with Rosemary Thomson conducting.
Operetta is the genre of light opera, originally from the opéra comique, to satisfy the demand for shorter, lighter operas, involving comic conflicts between couples, and mistaken identities.
The most significant operetta composer in the German language was Johann Strauss in Vienna. His third, Die Fledermaus (The Bat), became the most performed operetta in the world, and is still his most popular production.
In all, Strauss wrote 16 operettas and one opera. His operettas, waltzes, polkas, and marches are mostly associated with Vienna, and his popularity causes many to mistake him as the national composer of Austria.
He is particularly famous for his waltzes. The Viennese waltz (in the newly fashionable 3/4 rhythm) was initially regarded as a scandalous dance innovation in which couples actually embraced while dancing!
The Viennese traditions were continued by others including Franz Lehár, Carl Zeller, Emerich Kalman and Rudolph Siecynski, all represented on Sunday. Most of the pieces had unpronounceable titles (almost all were sung in German) but we were surprised and delighted to hear so many familiar tunes.
The orchestra opened with the ballroom classic, The Gold and Silver Waltz (Lehar), comfortingly familiar, which Thomson described as “like an old fashioned wave.”
A selection from The Merry Widow (Lehar), introducing four of the seven soloists, began with a flirtation with a respectably married woman. The arias that followed both had familiar tunes.
They finished with the waltz I Love You So. Shadan Saul Guerrero (soprano) and Andrey Andreychik (baritone) beautifully conveyed this dance of intimacy. Thomson provided the context for each song (bearing in mind that the all operetta plots are ridiculously complicated), but we didn’t need English lyrics to understand the feelings.
These were not just concert renditions (with singers merely standing by the conductor and doing the piece.) These performers were in character, reflecting the modern demand that opera singers should also be able to act.
The orchestra provided real bangs for our buck with Unter Donna und Blitzen (Strauss’ famous Thunder and Lightning polka).
Several of the Viennese pieces used the traditional Hungarian Czardas style –– starting slowly and gradually increasing in pace and intensity. These are seductive gypsy pieces, reminding one of flamenco music. Typical was I Hear The Gypsy Violin (Kalman), a bittersweet operatic piece from Countess Mariza.
All seven performers sang a lament to misunderstanding and unrequited love –– a powerful performance again emphasizing Vernon’s good fortune in staging live music of this calibre.
Strauss’ Die Fledermaus was given five excerpts. The highlight was the trio, with one husband disguised as another, flirting with someone else’s wife, who had to pretend to another man that she was with her own husband.
As the wife, Guerrero’s dilemma was clear despite the German text, the complexity of the plot, and the tenor having to sing from a score.
Every winter the New Year broadcast from Vienna includes The Radetzky March (Strauss Sr.), traditionally played as the third and final encore. On Sunday Thomson chose it as the second-to-last piece, but the audience still respected tradition by clapping through the choruses.