You see, The Sound of Music is not just about the music -- and I'm afraid this is where the Grazer Oper goes wrong. From the beginning of the performance it is clear that this production's strength is in the music, but it's a shame that this comes at the expense of the rest of the story. While last year's musical productions of My Fair Lady and West Side Story proved Graz is capable of staging a good musical but lacks non-operatic singers, this year's musical production of The Sound of Music is a perfect fit for these opera house voices. Sieglinde Feldhofer as Maria does an admirable job of capturing the essence of Julie Andrews' voice, admittedly a hard act to follow. Likewise, the nuns in the abbey consistently perform well as a supporting chorus and in a select few songs of their own. The children are perfectly cast for cuteness and talent, and Boris Pfeifer as Captain von Trapp is more pleasant on the ears than his orginal counterpart, Christopher Plummer. But when the cast of the show isn't singing, there is, sadly, nothing to propel the production along.
For reasons I cannot rationalize, the German staging of The Sound of Music has chosen to remove or change critical details of the story, crippling many of the scenes that, in the movie, are so powerful. It seems that any of the characters in the film who are coniving or treacherous are made over in the musical to be normal, redeemable characters...and where is the intrigue in that?
We know, for instance, that the butler, Franz, is a Nazi sympathizer in the Graz production -- it's mentioned, once. But in the musical production, it is not Franz who betrays the family as they attempt to flee during the night; rather, the authorities just happen to show up two days before the musical festival and knock on the door, informing Captain von Trapp that he is to report to duty immediately. And here it is Maria who convinces the Nazi officials to wait a couple days until they can have their farewell performance at the theater. For reasons unknown, Franz's betrayal of the family -- an inside job, thus very dramatic -- is taken out.
Similarly, the influence of the Baroness is played down and she is given absolutely no personality at all. She returns to the estate with Captain von Trapp because, as we're led to believe, she loves him. Not only does she love the Captain von Trapp, but she loves the children, too -- there's no talk of marrying Georg for his money or sending the kids off to boarding school once she's the Captain's wife -- and indeed it is she who arranges for the children to sing "So Long, Farewell" to the guests at the ball. And perhaps the most insulting affront to the story is when the Baroness' character is stripped of her jealosy and manipulation of Maria. Instead of the Baroness cattily confronting Maria about the way the Captain looked at her at the ball, it is instead Brigitta, the daughter, who innocently tells Maria that of course her father is in love with her and has been for a long time. Not only is this confession unconvincing from what we've seen of the Captain and Maria so far, but the Baroness' character simply becomes redundant at this point.
Sadly, the von Trapp children suffer from the same one-dimensionality as the Baroness. When Maria arrives at the von Trapp household, she is immediately welcomed into the family by the children, who are on their best behavior from day one. We're told by Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, that the last governess left abruptly because she'd had enough; however, this admission is largely incongruous with the way the children treat Fräulein Maria. Nary a prank is played upon the poor woman, and we lose the sense that Maria has really bonded with the children.
Despite all of this, the von Trapp family of the musical somehow makes it to the Salzburg Music Festival and manages to come off as a convincing, fearful family, singing together as if for the last time. Since so much of the plot is a letdown until this point, I was thrilled when the von Trapp family takes the stage, and Nazi soldiers stream through the doors of the opera, posting themselves on alert throughout the audience. The Commandant himself takes a box seat near the front of the stage to watch the performance, and all of this audience interaction started to win me over again. Indeed, when the von Trapp family is called back on stage to receive their award and is then discovered missing, the soldiers run out from the seating area, and a spotlight sweeps the audience in pursuit of the escapees. The tension builds, and by the time the family takes refuge in the abbey, the audience knows that the big escape is near. Then Rolf enters the abbey. In the biggest disappointment of the whole production, Rolf spots Liesl, stops in his tracks, and then -- robbing the production of the biggest moment in the movie's climax -- calls out, "They're not here, either!" Thus, the family escapes. Without the big chase. Without the suspense. Without much difficulty at all, it seems. The Reverend Mother simply appears and tells the von Trapps that their best bet is to escape over the mountains, to which the Captain replies in the schmalziest line of the entire production, "I always had the feeling that the mountains were our friends." Then we watch as the family von Trapp ascends into the Alps, presumably with the same faulty geography as the film, over the border of Salzburg and into Switzerland.
As I said, it's the music that carries this production, not the plot. Yet even the musical score isn't off-limits in the German adaption. For reasons I still cannot understand, Maria breaks into a round of "My Favorite Things" when she's being chastised by the Reverend Mother at the beginning of the show for singing in the hills and arriving late back at the abbey. As if that wasn't enough to digest, Maria chooses to sing "The Lonely Goatherd" when the von Trapp children run into her room on the first night, frightened of the thunderstorm. "I Have Confidence" is conspicuously missing from the score, although two new and extraneous songs materialize between Max and the Baroness -- one of which cautions Captain von Trapp to be more politically moderate. For the most part though, there was a filter between the music and my brain, taking in the German lyrics and processing them into English before they reached my mind. Taking this into account, I was admittedly listening to an alternative version of the musical...but with all of these modifications, who can blame me? However, what the characters lacked in expression and depth, the conductor made up for in his own enthusiastic performance. Watching him was nearly as entertaining as watching the performers on stage, and he did an excellent job bringing this classic score alive.
The Sound of Music in the Grazer Oper is best taken with a grain of salt. Since most Austrians have never actually seen the film version of The Sound of Music, they'll probably leave happy, having enjoyed the good music and the kitschy portrayal of pre-war Austria for a fun night out on the town. And, let's be fair here, it's The Sound of Music, so it's a Must-See, regardless. But for purists such as myself, it's probably best to just stick to the film.