Johann Strauss never found a libretto half as good as Die Fledermaus with its light-hearted middle-class sexy satire. His sumptuous waltzes and nationalistic touches like the Hungarian czardas gave its naughtiness the right care-free touch. Victor Leon's libretto for Simplicius fares no better than any other second-string one Strauss added to his canon of operettas. Based on a well-known German picaresque tale by H. J. C. von Grimmelshausen, it deals with a child of nature and his adventures during the Thirty Years War. Pountney mocks the military with huge helmets, legs and boots to characterize their fierceness. A pompous general pontificates from atop a large boot rolled about in act 2. A hangman's tree loaded with bodies represents the agonies of the Thirty Years War in Act 3, yet paradoxically this act has the most melodious engaging music and the resolution of the romantic entanglements.
The dark brown wood (mainly tree trunks) of act I has a bearded middle-aged hermit and a barefoot lad, who larks about bare-chested to show off his gymnastic ability, Simplicius and his father, the hermit. Eventually huge military legs and boots move in to disgorge soldiers who carry off the lad and leave the hermit tied to a tree.
The romantic entanglements begin in act 2 in a military camp, where Tilly, daughter of a food vendor, tries to teach Simplicius to act more like a soldier. Two of the better musical numbers involve upper-class lovers-Hildegarde, a general's daughter, and Arnim, a student from Prague who has followed her to the camp. She has a dreamy song, "Bald war in Schlummer ich gesunken" (Soon I was sunk in slumber), that turns militant. Two warriors fight over her amid the gun smoke, and she wakes as they smite each other. A melodious love duet with Arnim follows, "Bin Gedanke" (One thought). The hermit opens act 3 with a nostalgic waltz-romance with a good lilt. He sings about the past, "Ich denke gern zuruck" (I think gladly back), which baritone Michael Voile makes one of the standouts. He sings of his youthful courage, strong arm and a loving warm woman, emphasized with a briefly slower amorous tempo. Arnim, who will prove to be Simplicius' brother, has a fine song "Der Frilling lacht" (Spring laughs) about the joy of spring and his blissful love. Tenor Piotr Beczala looks matinee-idol handsome and sings with smooth animation. Unfortunately he sings locked in a wooden platform under the hangman's tree, which justifies his emphatic lines about a wild autumn wind that destroys the spring dream. With Simplicius now a baron, he declares he knows nothing of love even though he must marry a countess. Tilly, a delicious and delightful romantic foil for him, sung by Martina Jankovii with winsome charm, tries to teach him in a comic duet, "Also, du bist ein Freiersmann" (So, you are a suitor).
A quartet of these lovers moves from a deadly Rhine fairy to a beneficent Danube one who brings joy and merriment. Shortly before the second enters the song, the hanged men circle above as branches turn, a grisly omen of better to come. Thunder, lightning and rain send most scampering offstage. An unusual ballet to the waltz "Danube Maiden" begins as the rain stops. Gowned dancers join Simplicius around the platform and on it. Part way through the dancers throw off their outer clothes to move barefoot in their long underwear, plain and frilly, to cavort under the hangman's tree. Perhaps it signals the triumph of Simplicius and nature because birds twitter and sing at the end of the waltz. Then he and Arnim reunite with their father, the hermit. The lovers pair off and leaves descend from the tree to hide the hanged men. Nature and simplicity blot out war.
A strange production of a melodious operetta, but recommended for Johann Strauss lovers.
The Opera Journal
University of Northern Colorado
Michael VolleMartin ZyssetRolf Haunstein
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