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Babes in Coyland

Decca Broadway's operetta reissues aren't complete or completely authentic, but they're still a ripe earful. logo

Just got back from the Ohio Light Opera in Wooster, where it is possible -- though perhaps not the sanest idea -- to see eight operettas in five days. OLO's season embraces both the familiar (Brigadoon, HMS Pinafore) and the obscure (Autumn Maneuvers, Boccaccio), and the venerable troupe almost always performs this much misunderstood genre with integrity and without condescension. So it seemed a good omen, on returning to New York, to find two of Decca Broadway's new double-operetta CD reissues in my mailbox, with the original artwork and smart new liner notes by Eric Myers. Kind of prolongs the holiday, doesn't it?

Well, yes and no. The recordings -- a Victor Herbert double feature of Babes in Toyland and The Red Mill, and a Sigmund Romberg pairing of The Desert Song and The New Moon -- date back to the 1940s and early 1950s. At the time, operetta was, in theater historian Ethan Mordden's words, "the corpse that refused to die." The famous titles were summer theater staples and popular in revival: A 1945 Red Mill, for instance, ran on Broadway clear into 1947. But new operettas by such past masters as Romberg and Emmerich Kalman were fast flops (Kalman's Marinka looked pretty quaint next to Carousel in 1945). And making the older shows palatable to modern ears meant joking up the librettos, re-orchestrating the scores, and injecting a certain winking quality into the performance style.

It was under these conditions that Decca's sides were made. (The remasterings, from glass discs, don't entirely wipe out the hisses and pops but the recordings probably sound cleaner than they have in decades.) The arrangements sometimes are implacably '40s, with muted trumpets and soupy strings; ironically, they seem more dated than the originals. And, presumably because they were first issued on big and heavy 78s, the scores are seriously truncated: Toyland and Mill max out at 46 minutes combined, while the Rombergs add up to 54.

Listening to Decca's Babes in Toyland, then, is more a journey back to 1944 than to 1903. The original was musically and visually huge: Herbert's 1903 version opens with a 15-minute, wordless pantomime involving a storm, a shipwreck, an enchanted island, and a symphonic suite that approaches Wagnerian ferocity. (The piece is included on a Naxos Records Herbert CD, which is a corker.) The score contains several other major orchestral interludes and well over a dozen songs -- waltzes, topical comic numbers, romantic ballads, and nursery rhyme settings. It's almost an opera, reduced by Decca to a Whitman's sampler. But hey, samplers are tasty, too.

We do get a complete, spiritedly conducted "March of the Toys." And the rest is unfailingly melodic, from "Toyland" to "I Can't Do the Sum" (maybe the only song ever to consist of Dadaist math questions) to "Floretta" (a bizarre showcase for a tenor in gypsy drag). Some rarities are included, too, like a stately "Hail to Christmas" waltz and a zippy "Military Ball" instrumental. The arrangements are '40s-tinged, but not oppressively so. And Kenny Baker, whose chipmunk cheeks and corn syrup tenor plagued so many B-movie musicals, sings straightforwardly and inoffensively. The only real irritant is his vis-à-vis, Karen Kemple; I know performance styles change, and it's probably not her fault, but she sings like she's brain-dead. Herbert would have demanded more nuance.

He certainly gets it from the leading lady on The Red Mill, a young Eileen Farrell. The Metropolitan Opera diva was also an outstanding crossover artist, and she's radiant in two of Herbert's most lilting waltzes, "The Isle of Our Dreams" and "Moonbeams." This 1906 score was considered closer to musical comedy than operetta at the time, and it's lighter than Babes, with friskier lyrics (by Henry Blossom; some of Glen MacDonough's Toyland couplets are barely English). Wilbur Evans, normally a dullard of a Broadway baritone, shows signs of life on "Every Day Is Ladies' Day With Me," and a then-popular tenor named Felix Knight -- whom you may know from March of the Wooden Soldiers, the retitled film adaptation of Babes in Toyland that starred Laurel and Hardy -- partners Farrell capably if stolidly.

Unusual for operetta, Romberg's The Desert Song, from 1926, was ripped from the day's headlines -- T.E. Lawrence, French Moroccan uprisings, masked marauders and the like. Romberg met the challenge splendidly. The Desert Song is rich in stirring male choruses and minor scale Moroccan atmosphere. It's also just plain silly, with a ridiculous dual-identity plot and lyrics like "Here lies his saber there / So like the man." (What would Freud have made of that?) For Decca, this immortal line is trilled by none other than the former chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts, Kitty Carlisle.

Now, we all love and revere Kitty, but the fact is that her soprano is on the thin side here and her line readings are hilariously overripe. Decca -- unwisely, in this case -- included loads of dialogue, and to hear La Carlisle overshoot the runway on lines like "Come one step nearer and I'll fire!" is to understand how operetta earned its reputation for frippery. The melodies are still appealing, and Felix Knight, back for seconds, nails the high B on "One Flower Grows Alone in Your Garden" like he means it.

The 1928 hit The New Moon was recorded late in the Decca cycle, in 1953, during a big Romberg revival. That year saw the third film version of The Desert Song and in 1954 came a Student Prince remake, the ten-ton Romberg biopic Deep In My Heart, and his (posthumous) final Broadway musical The Girl in Pink Tights. Set in 18th century New Orleans, Moon is marginally less loony than Desert, with a central love triangle involving a nobleman posing as a manservant, a ship's captain, and the ship owner's daughter. Here, as conducted by the celebrated Hollywood composer Victor Young, the score suffers from '50s bloat, with heavy, Kostelanetz-like arrangements and draggy tempos. Still -- however you conduct them -- "Stouthearted Men," "Lover, Come Back to Me," "One Kiss," "Wanting You," and "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" comprise quite a tune stack. Soprano Jane Wilson is as uninflected as Karen Kemple, but Thomas Hayward and Lee Sweetland deliver the goods ringingly.

If you automatically break into giggles whenever the word "gay" is sung in its old context, or if you reject out of hand any lyric that begins "My desert is waiting" (You own a desert? What exactly is it waiting for?), these recordings probably aren't for you. But if you would like to test operetta's waters without investing in a week in Wooster (where the food, by the way, is terrible), they're a fine place to start. And if you're already a fan, they'll be graceful additions to your CD library. Decca Broadway has more operetta titles on the way, and my desert is waiting. Finally, a stray observation: All the singers on these tracks lived at least into their 70s, and most made it into their 80s and 90s. Is it possible that operetta actually possesses life-extending properties?


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