Franz Lehár’s music represented Central European songwriting in the first half of the 20th century, and his work appealed enormously to Americans (like my parents and grandparents) whose forefathers had emigrated from Europe.
Once again Dan Pantano’s Concert Operetta Theater has revived this genre for modern audiences, both to demonstrate what aroused our ancestors and to teach the operetta style to young singers so they can expand their repertoire.
But Frederica (1928) is no typical Lehár work. Usually the composer of The Merry Widow presented lots of waltzing, romance, and a happy ending. He also composed a few biographical operettas that ostensibly portrayed the lives of historical figures (Paganini, for example).
Frederica tells the supposed life of Goethe, Germany's most famous poet, and his doomed love for Frederica, daughter of the Vicar of Sesenheim.
Goethe is in no financial position to support a wife, and he is offered a post as poet at the Court of Weimar. Goethe's predecessor at court lost his post because his marriage and family had restricted his creativity, and the Duke of Weimar is determined now to hire a bachelor for the post. In that case, Goethe says he’s not interested. But Frederica unselfishly decides to reject Goethe, thereby forcing him to accept the job that will make him famous.
The last act takes place eight years later. Goethe is passing through Sesenheim on his way to Switzerland with the Grand Duke Karl-August (played by Pantano), and he tells the Duke that this was the place where he spent the happiest hours of his life, where a heart as pure as gold was his before she rejected him. Frederica— who has remained single— appears, and Goethe realizes the extent of the sacrifice that she made for him. But there’s no happy ending. His duties require Goethe to move on.
Hitler’s favorite Jew?
The operetta is more a showpiece for the lead tenor than it is for the lead soprano. Lehár wrote Goethe’s music for Richard Tauber, the legendary Austrian-Jewish singer (who, ironically, also was one of Hitler’s favorites). Therefore, some of Goethe’s arias are meant to be crooned. They call for soft, almost-pop singing before ascending to belting high notes. You could imagine Mario Lanza in some of this music, which this month was handled superbly by tenor Dominick Chenes.
Frederica’s most famous aria, “O Mädchen, mein Mädchen” (Oh Maiden, my Maiden), was sung here in the original German— a nice touch that reminded me of the Met’s 1961 revival of Flotow’s operetta Martha, which was sung in English except for the final performance, when Richard Tucker sang his big aria as “M’Appari,” using the well-known Italian words. It brought the house down, although the Met’s general manager Rudolf Bing was furious.
Lehár’s music for the title character is more conventionally operatic. Megan Monaghan possesses a lovely voice, which she modulated nicely for Frederica’s pensive, intimate passages. The supporting cast was excellent, and music director Richard Raub was Herculean at the piano.
For another review by Tom Purdom, click here.
What, When, Where
Frederica. Operetta by Franz Lehár; original German libretto by Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Lohner; English lyrics by Harry S. Pepper; English dialogue translated by Gudrum von Auenmueller 2013 (world premiere of dialogue). Megan Monaghan, soprano; Dominick Chenes, tenor; Christina Chenes, soprano; William Lim, Jr., tenor. Richard Raub, musical director and pianist. Concert Operetta Theater production June 14-15, 2014 at Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., Philadelphia. 215-389-0648 or www.concertoperetta.com.