Cambridge University Press

La Zarzuela Baroque (Serna)

The Cambridge Companion to Operetta

Anastasia Belina and Derek B. Scott (editors)

Cambridge University Press, 2019 (xxvi+319pp, £22.99 paperback, £74.99 hardback)

ISBN 9781316633342 (paperback)
ISBN 9781316856024 (hardback)

‘What on earth is zarzuela doing in a book about operetta?’ Christopher Webber mischievously asks at the start of his chapter here on zarzuela. Well, all who are familiar with this website will know that zarzuela covers a distinct and diverse field that does indeed set it apart from operetta elsewhere. Fortunately for us Webber ultimately concedes that ‘zarzuela and operetta are related to an extent that fully justifies a chapter in this book’. Regular users of this website will also not be surprised that Webber’s own chapter is one of the best here, demonstrating a refreshingly thorough knowledge of the repertory and conveying its appeal in a way not always apparent elsewhere. My regret is that he makes no mention of zarzuela in Cuba and perhaps elsewhere outside Spain.

Anastasia Belina (editor)Besides the editors’ introduction, the book contains 19 chapters by 18 contributors. Those contributors’ brief seems to have been a loose one, with the result that perhaps inevitably the book is something of a curate’s egg. The geographical coverage embraces not only the obvious centres – France, Austria, Germany, Britain and America as well as Spain – but also Hungary, Bohemia, Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece, Scandinavia and even Australia (in a discussion with director Barrie Kosky). The editors rightly express regret for the lack of a chapter on Croatia, robbing us of discussion of works by the likes of Ivan Zajc and Ivo Tijardović (happily represented on YouTube). What we are given also leaves us in certain respects short-changed. Though the editors stress in their introduction that the book does not pretend to be all-embracing, some of the boundaries of included repertory are surprising. John Kenrick’s opening chapter on French operetta, for instance, is admirable as far as it goes, but it only briefly ventures beyond Offenbach to mention Hervé, Lecocq and Planquette. Never does it get even to Edmond Audran and André Messager, let alone to Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Christiné and Maurice Yvain. Audran, as it happens, is mentioned in two later chapters but still doesn’t get an entry in the decidedly quirky index. As for the so-called ‘golden age’ of Viennese operetta, Lisa Feurzeig’s coverage goes beyond Suppé and Strauss only to make a passing mention of Carl Millöcker and does not reach out even as far as Carl Zeller.

Derek B. Scott (Editor)More positively, I found Bruno Bower’s chapter on Gilbert and Sullivan refreshingly original, not least for its brief exploration of relevant video games. The celebrated ‘carpet quarrel’, though, was in 1890, not 1892, as he states. Derek Scott’s sensible discussion of post-G&S British works is likewise very worthwhile, though he slips up in attributing composition of the song ‘In Yorkshire’ from Our Miss Gibbs to Ivan Caryll. Like most of Gertie Millar’s hit numbers, it was composed by her husband, Lionel Monckton. I liked, too, Micaela Baranello’s chapter on the mechanics of Viennese operetta of the ‘silver age’, though I must question whether Emmerich Kálmán really did his own orchestrations. Conductor Max Schönherr, who worked with the composer, named Franz Kopřiva and Oskar Stalla among Kálmán’s orchestrators. Another lively chapter is that by Tobias Becker on twentieth-century Berlin operetta, though his claim that ‘Berlin entered the popular musical stage … in the last year of the nineteenth century’ is wildly misleading. It had a nineteenth century existence no less than Prague and Warsaw. What about the works of August Conradi (mentioned on page 80 but not indexed), Julius Einödshofer and others? Becker errs too, in that in Britain Die keusche Susanne became The Girl in the Taxi, not The Girl on the Film (originally Filmzauber).

As the editors stress in their introduction, they were keen to place an emphasis on the production and reception of operetta in different countries. Thus Orpheus in the Underworld and more particularly The Merry Widow are repeatedly cited in the various chapters. Chapter after chapter makes crystal clear how immense the impact of The Merry Widow was internationally. Was it not, indeed, this unprecedented international success that caused such previous national terms as opéra bouffe, opéra comique, Operette, comic opera, musical play and even (outside Spain) zarzuela to be subsumed by the term ‘operetta’?

La viuda alegre (The Merry Widow), Teatros Canal, Madrid, 2016 (Emilio Sagi production)

Beyond that, as mentioned, the brief seems to have been relatively free. I was particularly pleased to see that the chapters by Lynn M. Hooker and Valeria De Lucca on Hungary and Italy respectively both mention composers of their own underrated schools of operetta. By comparison, whilst Avra Xepapadakou’s Greek chapter cites seemingly quite obscure native practitioners, other chapters do not mention any. Since Jan Smaczny’s excellent chapter is specifically on operetta in the nineteenth-century Czech national revival, it understandably makes no mention of the likes of Rudolf Piskáček and others who created a twentieth-century Czech-language school of operetta. Pentti Paavolainen’s chapter on the Nordic countries deals with the reception of operettas in each country in turn, but makes no mention of a durable Danish work in Emil Reesen’s Farinelli.

One final point. In their introduction the editors state that ‘despite a few exceptions … operetta calls for the same kind of singer as in opera’. But isn’t variety theatre also an important element distinguishing it from opera? Still, putting together a volume such as this was a considerable challenge and, whatever quibbles I have expressed, the editors can be congratulated on the breadth and variety of the contents. Aimed at varying levels of knowledge as the chapters are, the book should provide informative reading for operetta students of a wide range of knowledge, and the paperback version at least is very reasonably priced.

© Andrew Lamb and, 2020

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