Opera Reviews
30 November 2023
Untitled Document

No death for Siegfried in Oscar Straus operetta

by Steve Cohen
Oscar Straus: Die Lustigen Nibelungen
Concert Operetta Theater, Philadelphia
13 June 2010

The first complete English translation of the 1904 operetta by Oscar Straus, Die Lustigen Nibelungen (The Merry Niebelungs) was premiered June 13 by Philadelphia's Concert Operetta Theater.

This is an American translation by Michael Ashby, Daniel Pantano and Stephan Stoeckl with colloquialisms that flow trippingly off the tongue. Credit also is due to the 1904 librettist, Fritz Oliven who wrote with the pseudonym "Rideamus." He was prescient enough to dramatize precious-metal investments, insider trading and financial bailouts in a script that has astonishing relevance today.

The piece is a send-up of Wagner's Nibelungen Ring, especially the plot from Götterdämmerung where Günther, Hagen and Brünnhilde agree that Siegfried must be killed. The Merry Nielungs mocked German militarism. For example, Siegfried sings a catchy march that burlesques Kaiser Wilhelm's claim that Germany was the most powerful empire on earth. In addition, Rideamus and Straus ridiculed big business and the stock market.

Characters sing about how Siegfried is the richest man in Europe after slaying a giant and a dragon and that he stashed all of his gold in the Rhine River. Siegfried corrects them: "Not in the banks of the Rhine. I put the gold in the Rhein Bank." Instead of asking a forest bird to foretell the future of mankind, this Siegfried asks a canary: "How will precious metals trade tomorrow?" (The original line was "Sagen sie mal, wie wird denn morgen die Montanbörse sie?")

Taking one plot point from Wagner's Ring, Siegfried agrees to participate in a double wedding and he promises half of his holdings to Günther. One of the reasons Günther wants to kill Siegfried is to get the gold that he pledged, and when the market crashes there's no longer that financial incentive, so Günther allows Siegfried to live.

Rather than copying Wagner's musical style, The Merry Nibelungs has more resemblance to Gilbert & Sullivan, with patter songs similar to "I am the captain of the Queen's navy" and "I am the very model of a modern major general." These alternate with catchy Viennese tunes, like a Rheingold Waltz that appears in the first act and returns in the finale. Siegfried is jolly as he sings: "This is Rheingold; it is my gold!"

The Merry Nibelungs was attacked by Wagner-lovers who said it was sacrilegious and by German nationalists who claimed that Straus's piece undermined confidence in the institutions that were necessary for Germany's expansion. At that time, heavy borrowing was being used by German industries in a build-up to what would become the First World War, and the stock market was booming. In The Merry Nibelungs, a stock market crash destroys most of Siegfried's wealth.

These attacks prevented additional bookings for The Merry Nibelungs in Germany and Austria. The composer went on to greater success with nostalgic romantic shows like A Waltz Dream and The Chocolate Soldier. He later moved to America and wrote movie musicals, including One Hour with You, directed by George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch and starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.

The piece has a happy ending, as the cast of The Merry Nibelungs sings: "Siegfried can't die because this is an operetta."

The large cast was ideal, including Michael Ashby (one of the co-authors of the libretto) as Siegfried, Cynthia Cook as Brünhilde, Darlene Kelsey, Daniel Lickteig, Edward Albert, Margaret Mezzacappa, Jason Switzer, Thomas Faracco and Patricia Vigil. The music director and pianist, José Meléndez, drilled the cast to be musically precise and the lyrics were understandable, which is a major accomplishment. Daniel Pantano, the company's artistic director and co-author of the script, was amusing in two cameo appearances. Pantano also was responsible for the simple and humorous staging.

The Merry Nibelungs (or Nibelung, which is the correct plural although it does not sound so to the average American) has had new-found success in its original language in Vienna and in Germany. This production will make it's New York City debut on Sunday, October 24, with the same cast.

Text © Steve Cohen
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