Sunday, November 11, 2012

THE MUSICAL THAT RUINED MY LIFE

MY FAIR LADY                  New Production 
Cologne Opera 
27 October 2012   (Premiere)
3 November 2012 (Alternate Cast Premiere) 

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA 

Musikalische Leitung Andreas Schüller / Inszenierung Dietrich W. Hilsdorf / Bühne Dieter Richter / Kostüme Renate Schmitzer / Licht Andreas Grüter / Dramaturgie Birgit Meyer / Chorleitung Jens Olaf Buhrow / Choreografie Giorgio Madia
Eliza Doolittle  Regina Richter / Gloria Rehm
Professor Henry Higgins  Klaus Schreiber / Ulrich Wiggers
Alfred P. Doolittle, Elizas Vater  Hans-Martin Stier
Freddy Eynsford-Hill  Miljenko Turk/ Gustavo Queresma
Oberst Pickering  Hans-Jochen Röhrig
Mrs. Pearce, Higgins Hausdame  Andreja Schneider
Mrs. Higgins  Sigrun Schneggenburger/ Naëmi Priegel
Jamie / Lord Boxington  Ralf Rachbauer
Harry / Lady Boxington  Frank Wöhrmann
Chor der Oper Köln Orchester Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Cologne Opera’s new production of My Fair Lady has come to fruition following a backstage drama that played out in headlines last summer across Germany.  The actor cast as Professor Henry Higgins, and the General Manager of Cologne Opera were fired at at the same time. Complicating the plot further:  the suddenly unemployed pair were actually one and the same person, Uwe Eric Laufenberg.

As Intendant, Laufenberg was summarily fired in June, when he failed to come up with a budget for future seasons. He offered to play Higgins for free, but he was refused. Nonetheless, he departed from the cash-strapped company reportedly with a 250-thousand euro ($318k) settlement.  Laufenberg’s place as Intendant was taken by Dr. Brigitte Meyer, who was promoted from Deputy General Manager. Two well known actors were recruited to alternate playing Henry Higgins. 
Left to Right: Sigrun Schneggenburger, Hans-Jochen Röhrig, Andreas Schüller, Hans-Martin Stier, Regina Richter, Klaus Schreiber, Miljenko Turk
Meanwwhile, acoustical gremlins kept rearing their audible heads, even after the premiere.  Eliza and Freddy, for starters, do not need to be miked. They are played by opera singers, who sound artificial when their voices come out of loudspeakers. The other characters, on the other hand, were poorly amplified -- at least at the two performances I saw. To find such shoddy acoustical imbalance in Germany, a nation whose excellence in pioneering electronic sound goes back to the 1920s, is shameful. To find it so glaringly evident in Cologne, recognized as Germany’s Media City, is little short of shocking. 
Miljenko Turk
Fortunately, goofy sound and all, Dietrich W. Hilsdorf's stage direction has culminated in a seamless show that may not soar but still takes frequent flight, thanks in great part to Dieter Richter’s lavish-looking sets, Renate Schmitzer’s expensive-looking costumes, Andreas Grüter’s deft lighting designs and Georgio Madia's handsome choreography.  At the premiere, Klaus Schrieber distinguished himself as Professor Henry Higgins, Hans Jochen Röhrig proved sympathetic as Higgins’ house guest Colonel Pickering, Miljenko Turk (a last-minute replacement) turned in an appealing Freddie Eynsford-Hill, Hans-Martin Stier was attractively gruff as Alfred P. Doolittle, Andreja Schneider was pleasantly pushy as Mrs. Pearce and Sigrun Schneggenburger essayed a canny Mrs. Higgens. 
Klaus Schreiber
As Eliza Doolittle, mezzo-soprano Regina Richter managed to be by and large effective.  She has an attractive stage personality and is effortlessly winsome. But her sultry voice is ill-suited to the part. The vocal demands of the role top off no higher than G, but they cry out for a sunny-side up lyric soubrette -- think Julie Andrews, Sally Ann Howes, Marni Nixon, Sarah Brightman, Ruthie Henshall, and yes, Susan Boyle. 
Above: Regina Richter; Below: Gloria Rehm

A week later, the alternate cast took over and took on a glow in the person of Gloria Rehm.  Her triumph as Eliza may have had a lot to do with her schooling. Coloratura voices of Rhem’s hue tend to encompass operettas and musicals, while those of Richter’s propend toward tragedy. 

Also new to the cast were Ulrich Wiggers as Higgins, Gustavo Quaresma as Freddy and Naëmi Priegel as Henry Higgens’ mother -- all of them distinctive. 
Gustavo Quaresma
While the second cast struck me as more successful than the ensemble at the premiere, the production as a whole went wanting for sparkle at both performances. Virtually every time I have seen My Fair Lady, “The Rain in Spain” number has roused audiences to ovations. At both performances I’ve witnessed so far in Cologne, the enthusiasm was tepid. While it’s easy enough to point out deficits -- ensemble lapses at the premiere, portrayal oddities in both performances -- the crux of the frequent lapses into listlessness result, in my view, from an identity issue: Is Cologne Opera’s My Fair Lady a “Musical” in the Broadway sense of the word? Or is it an operetta? 
Ulrich Wiggers
The question occurred to me toward the end of the first act at the premiere, when orchestra started playing the waltz in the Ball Scene, where Eliza must prove once and for all that she is no Cockney guttersnipe, but a lady of consequence. I had just begun to realize that I really wasn’t enjoying myself and neither, it seemed, were the spectators sitting cow-eyed nearby. Suddenly, for an all-too brief moment, the Gürzenich Orchestra under Andreas Schüller took on a spritely amble that previously had eluded it. The melody is pure pastiche, but its gently arcing sweep, as the orchestra leaned into it, was undeniably -- Viennese! This is music the orchestra has flowing in its collective veins, and it burst forth in all its Schlagsahne splendor.
Above Left: Frederick Loewe, Above Right: Alan Jay Lerner; Below: Hanya Holm


Indeed, a case could be argued for My Fair Lady as the last great Austro-German operetta. Nearly all its creators had their roots in this grand under-sung tradition, including New York-born lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Its composer Frederick Loewe was an Austrian exile. The show’s Choreographer Hanya Holm came from Worms and was active in Frankfurt and Dresden before establishing herself in the 1930s in the United States as a pioneer of modern dance. But the spirit of the show as an enduring masterpiece flows from the baton of its original music director Franz Allers. 
Franz Allers (Photo: Don Hunstein)
Born to Jewish parents in Bohemia,  Allers (1905-1995) cut his teeth as a conductor in Berlin, Wuppertal and Bayreuth, before the Nazis forced him to emigrate. He was close to both Lerner and Loewe and helped revise the arrangements for My Fair Lady, credited to Robert Russell Bennett (Victory at Sea), Phil Lang and Trude Rittman.  Most significantly, though, he hand-picked the members of the original cast orchestra, which included a number of fellow emigrés, as well as harpist Stephanie Goldner Ormandy (the first woman to join the New York Philharmonic and later Eugene Ormandy’s first wife). In 1961, Allers conducted the German premiere of My Fair Lady at Theater des Westens in West Berlin and subsequently led productions in Munich and Vienna. 

Steffy Goldner Ormandy, Eugene Ormandy (University of Pennsylvania)
Given the weight of such Teutonic baggage, small wonder that any production of My Fair Lady in German-speaking countries would be treated with ambivalence. But it shouldn’t be, because Allers’ influence in shaping the musical ambience of the show was overwhelming, and his treatment of the score is well documented in the original Broadway cast recording (Cyril Ornadel conducted the West End Cast stereo recording) and in the original German cast recording. 

Listen to the Columbia-Sony CD, and ignore the painful fact that it plays nearly a quarter step sharp.  Despite its mono ambience, you’ll hear it sizzle with Broadway vigor while fizzing with Rotkäppchen Sekt. The casts and orchestra of Cologne Opera would be well advised to listen closely to it. They are the last line of defence in preventing this fabulous tradition from going with the wind.
Above: Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison; Below: Sally Ann Howes, Edward Mulhare

Finally, a confession: My Fair Lady ruined my life. It was the only hit Broadway musical of my formative years whose original cast I missed. It was two years before I could see it on Broadway, and by then, Edward Mulhare and Sally Ann Howes had replaced Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, who had left for London to headline the West End production. To this day, missing out on Rex and Julie remains a stick in my craw. In a manner of compensating, I saw Moss Hart’s production 11 times. (Ah, those incredible sets by Oliver Smith, turning into and out of one another on twin revolving stages!) As for the casts, Sally Ann Howes was by far the best of the Elizas. Many say, she was even better than Julie. I want to believe it.  But I will never know.

Color Fotos, Grafix, Post-Production: Sam H. Shirakawa

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2 Comments:

At 11/12/2012 2:27 PM, Blogger Dr.B said...

Once I was in a German language version of this work. It was enormous fun.

 
At 2/05/2013 2:42 AM, Anonymous Sally Sublette said...

If you have a list of other members of the "original cast orchestra," can you provide them? It'd be interesting to see.

Also, there was a terrific, lengthy "Profile" of Franz Allers in The New Yorker while My Fair Lady was running. Lots of detail there--and, IIRC, a mention that Allers would listen to the cast album once weekly, just to remind himself of the standard for the show (and so not to allow the interpretation to "morph").

 

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