Richard HEUBERGER (1850-1914)
Der Opernball - operetta in three acts (1898)
Harald Serafin, Helen Mané, Maria Tiboldi, Tatjana Iwanow, Christiane Schröder, Maurice Besançon, Heinz Erhardt, Uwe Friedrichsen, Beata Hassenau
Kurt Graunke Symphony Orchestra (Munich)/Willy Mattes
Television Adaptation: Reinhold Brandes and Eugen York
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
DVD Format: DVD 9, NTSC
Subtitle Languages: German (original language), English, French
Region Code: 0 (All Regions)
ARTHAUS DVD 101 628 [100:00]
Popular from its premiere through to the mid-twentieth century, the operetta Der Opernball is probably the best-known work by the composer Richard Heuberger. As familiar as the work has been on-stage, it was filmed several times, specifically in 1939 (unfortunately without much of the score), 1956 and 1970. This DVD is a transfer of the last film, which is based on a production of the work in Munich. The 1970 film benefits from the close angles and controlled sound of the studio in order to bring the audience into the stage action. While the result may lack the dynamic interaction with an audience, it still conveys the immediacy of an effective theatrical production.
Perhaps less familiar to modern audiences than Johann Strauss’s Der Fledermaus (1874) and Franz Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe (1905), Heuberger’s 1898 Der Opernball falls aesthetically and chronologically between those two works. With its use of waltzes and dance rhythms, Der Opernball fits into the conventions associated with operetta at the turn of the last century, but stands apart from others of the time because of its cleverly plotted story.
The libretto for Der Opernball is a theatrical farce from 1876 by Alfred Delacour and Alfred Hennequin, and features a double deception between a pair of wives and their husbands. This is complicated by the intrigues of Hortense, the maid of one of the couples. In the good operatic tradition of testing the faithfulness of spouses, the wives set up a deception to intrigue their husbands, while trusting that the men will not succumb to it. Here, the wives specifically plan assignations with an unnamed countess, who plans to attend the opera ball in a pink-hooded robe (the domino rose of the libretto) and masked. When both wives decide to try their husband’s virtue, the maid pursues the ruse herself, and the dénouement involves three women in the same disguise, an anomaly that never strikes the men as at all unusual. The complications ensue when the husbands seem intrigued by the others’ wives and pursue conversations in the private dining rooms at the ball. These secluded rooms are the “chambre séparée” that becomes the subject of a recurring waltz “Gehen wir ins Chambre séparée” in the final act. The complications are predictably temporary, with the couples resolving their differences with remarkable speed and the maid winning the nephew as her husband.
As to the film, the action is framed as the exchange between painter Toulouse-Lautrec and his model Giselle, who set up the story at the beginning and narrate the Finale as they reminisce about memorable events of carnival season. This device is useful in setting up the conclusion. While the painter and his model talk about the morning after the ball, the filmed images are manipulated to comic effect through the speeding up or slowing of the images to bring out the humor of the expected duel and reconciliation. This self-conscious treatment of the conclusion works well in the film, which evokes some aspects of stop-action found in Widerberg’s 1967 film Elvira Madigan.
Yet some other aspects of the film do not work as well. The use of actors with dubbed voices is problematic: The acting is good, and the singing laudable, but the synching is poor, sometimes unintentionally comic. The latter is not the fault of the DVD transfer, but a weakness of the original film. While the lips do not always move seamlessly with the sound, the viewer easily compensates for this minor failing. In this transfer, the images are crisp and clear, with the resolution sufficiently fine to allow the details in the painted flats of the drawing room in the first act to call to mind paintings from the era. A similar clarity is to be found with the sound, which is nicely resonant.
All in all, the performances give a sense of the work, especially through continuity which remains an attractive element of the film The action moves smoothly between the scenes and plays well into the timing necessary for the comic twists. In the first part of the work, the somewhat sentimental aria “Man liebt nur einmal auf der Welt” is nicely put across by Harald Serafin (Paul), and its repetition is not unwelcome. Yet its reprise is not allowed to halt the action, with the character Feodora played by Beata Hasenau nicely upstaging Serafin’s reverie by interrupting him and calling for a can-can. Other numbers are memorable, such as the letter scene in the first act underscored with the ensemble “Heute abend”, in which the women Helen Mané (Angèle), Maria Tiboldi (Marguerite), Tatjana Iwanow (Palmira) and Christiane Schröder (Hortense) compose the messages to the husbands and anticipate the excitement of the opera ball of the title. The patter songs of the nephew Henri, portrayed by Uwe Friedrichsen, suggest some aspects of Gilbert and Sullivan, especially in the first act number “Ich habe die Fahrt um Kap Horn gemacht,” with its use of nautical convention. Ultimately the “Chambre separée” waltz recurs sufficiently to identify its music with work, a feature that is not unwelcome. The timing in the film allows it to work cogently within this interpretation of the operetta.
The film also merits attention for the effective sets, which make use of the graphic style of fin-de-siècle Paris to reinforce the style implicit in the music. The conscious evocation of Toulouse-Lautrec is brought to life through the choreography, with its homage to the can-can immortalized in art. Beyond the spirit of the period, the film captures the spirit of Heuberger’s famous operetta. While this work is now staged infrequently, the release of this film builds a case for reviving Der Opernball so that modern audiences might enjoy its charms.
James L. Zychowicz
Captures the attractive spirit of this famous operetta and builds a case for revival so that modern audiences might enjoy its charms.