Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Sound of Music

(c) Grazer Oper

One of the reasons I love living in Graz is because I have so many opportunities available to me that I wouldn't have [time or money for] back home. And one of last year's biggest highlights was my subscription for season's tickets to the Graz Opera House (Grazer Oper). So when I saw the program for this year's opera season with The Sound of Music prominently listed, I knew I would have to make it a priority to go to the opera at least one last time before leaving Graz.

Last night I had the perfect offer: a visiting friend had connections with a sound technician and could get us into a box seat for free! We'd be sitting right up next to the stage under a hot spotlight, but who can complain when this arrangement so perfectly fits our budget! As we entered through the backstage area and snaked in and out of an underground maze of corridors before climbing a series of staircases to get to our loge, I was literally bouncing with anticipation. We were shown into our own private box, a little awkwardly situated directly to the right of the stage, but great seats if we snuggled up together in the corner and leaned in. As a connoisseur of the film, The Sound of Music, I wasn't too worried that this production was being staged in German -- I knew practically the whole thing by heart, so none of the story would be lost on me.

Or so I thought.

*****DISCLAIMER: The rest of this entry contains spoilers. If you have any intention of seeing this production, please do not read any further until after you've seen the musical.*****

(c) Grazer Oper

Let me just start by saying that I was willing to make concessions for this musical. Clearly, it is difficult to adapt a three-hour movie into a three-hour stage production. There are certain limitations of the stage that may affect how the plot is played out or how the story moves forward. But I was unprepared for the arbitrary meddling that essentially stripped the story and the characters of any depth, intrigue, or suspense.

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.

(c) Grazer Oper


I Just Know Everything said...

I am going to have to post this as several comments.

I came across this blog while searching for information about the Graz production. Please excuse my lengthy comment, but "The Sound of Music" is one of my favorite musicals and I must defend the stage version.

I did not see the Graz production, so I cannot comment specifically on how it was translated or directed, but many of your qualms seem not to be with this specific production, but with the stage version (as opposed to the film) overall.

The original stage production (which opened on Broadway in 1959) is slightly different from the 1964 film.

In the stage version, we learn that Franz indeed supports the nazi agenda by the fact that he heils Hitler, but no, he never alerts the authorities that the von Trapp family is planning to escape (which he does in the film.) In fact, it's never mentioned whether Franz is even aware of the escape in the stage version. It seems as if only Max is informed of the plan. Franz betraying the family was written specifically for the film. It's a great touch, but I don't think the stage version is inferior in any way because of this. In fact, I prefer the way the scene on stage where Georg is asked to report to Bremerhaven transitions directly from the von Trapp family giving a preview of their concert piece to the festival concert.

I Just Know Everything said...

Yes in the stage version, after a bit of quick thinking, Maria convinces Herr Zeller and Admiral von Schreiber to allow the family to perform in the festival concert. This performance is, of course, something Georg is opposed to, but it provides their only chance to flee. In the film, Georg comes up with the ruse, but I don't think this small change makes much a difference in terms of which version is superior.

In the stage version, I wouldn't say that nazi officials just "happen to show up". Herr Zeller and Admiral von Schreiber arrive at the von Trapp villa the day that Georg and Maria return from their honeymoon inquiring about why there has been no response to a telegram. In the film, Herr Zeller runs into Max while Georg and Maria are still on their honeymoon. It's a similar situation, and I wouldn't say either version is more effective.

I am not sure how exactly the Graz adaptation was translated, but Frau Schraeder has a great deal of personality in the original stage version. She is quite different from the Baroness in the film, however.

In the stage version, Frau Schraeder and Georg plan to marry more for convenience and politics than for love.

Frau Schraeder does not overtly dislike the children in the stage version, but she is overwhelmed by them and never takes much interest in getting to know them. This, of course, is the opposite of the nurturing Maria.

The film seems to create a villain in Baroness Schraeder by having her dislike the children and Maria. Frau Schraeder in the stage version is less of a villain, and I would argue a more developed character. We don't dislike her. In fact, she's quite sympathetic. We just would rather see Georg end up with Maria, because she is the woman he truly loves and she cares deeply for his family.

We could argue about whether it is more effective for Frau Schraeder or Brigitta to confront Maria about Georg's feelings for her. Again, I prefer the stage version. In this version, Frau Schraeder is not as jealous of Maria as Baroness Schraeder is in the film. Frau Schraeder, as an extremely wealthy woman, is not threatened by Maria. Maria is, after all, only staff. So I find it very effective for Brigitta to have an innocent discussion with Maria that scares her into heading back to the abbey. I would say that in the stage version, there is just as much indication by this point in the story that Georg has feelings for Maria as there is in the film. They have sung "The Sound of Music: Reprise" and danced "The Laendler" together.

Yes, in the stage version, Frau Schraeder insists that the children sing at the party, despite Georg's wishes that they don't (as opposed to the film version where Maria announces that the children have planned something special.) I think this effectively shows that Frau Schraeder is a selfish woman who does not take the wishes of Georg (and presumably his children) into consideration.

Perhaps it was the translation or the staging, but in the stage version, the older children are hesitant to welcome Maria initially, though she quickly wins them over with "Do Re Mi". Aside from Louisa claiming to be Brigitta, the pranks that the children play on their governesses are only mentioned and not seen onstage. In the film, there is a prank involving a frog and then a prank involving a pinecone. As with the Franz situation discussed earlier, I don't think anything is lost in the stage version in regards to the pranks not being seen.

I Just Know Everything said...

In the stage version, Rolf does not turn in the family at the end, while in the film, he does. Again, we could argue about whether the film or the stage version treats this scene more effectively. And again, I go with the stage version. Rolf enters the stage in search of the family. At first he does not see them, but right before exiting, he notices that they are hiding. He calls out to his lieutenant, and then Liesl steps forward. At the last second, his love for Liesl overpowers his nazi training. He decides he cannot betray the family. It's very powerful, in my opinion. However, one could argue that the way this scene is handled in the film is also powerful. I just prefer the stage version.

The line during the final scene that you reference is written in the stage script as "I've always thought of these mountains as our friends, standing here protecting us. Now they seem to have become our enemies." He's speaking of how the mountains have protected Austria from past invasions, and yet now these mountains are preventing his family from escaping the dangers within the country - a country that he loves very much.

You are correct, however, that walking from Salzburg to Switzerland would be quite a trek across Austria, not just up and over some mountains.

The original score was written as you described and song placement was changed for the film. Maria and the Reverend Mother sing "My Favorite Things" as a duet in the stage version. They bond over this tune that they both grew up singing. Maria then uses "The Lonely Goatherd" to distract the children from the thunderstorm. I will admit that I prefer "My Favorite Things" during the thunderstorm, though I still love the duet between Maria and the Reverend Mother. The recent worldwide Andrew Lloyd Webber productions of the musical chose to have the song sung by both Maria and the Reverend Mother and then during the thunderstorm. "The Lonely Goatherd" was placed before the party scene. In the 1998 Broadway revival and subsequent national touring production, "My Favorite Things" was not sung by Maria and the Reverend mother, it was sung during the thunderstorm, and "The Lonely Goatherd" was moved to the festival concert scene (it replaced "Do Re Mi: Reprise".) Many major professional productions choose to place these songs more in line with the film, however many still choose to leave the songs in their original locations.

"I Have Confidence" was written specifically for the film, as was the song "Something Good". Neither appeared in the original stage version. I personally do not think either of these songs fit very well into the musical. They were written entirely by Richard Rodgers after Oscar Hammerstein's death. In the stage version, Maria sings "My Favorite Things: Reprise" where she sings "I Have Confidence" in the film, and a song called "An Ordinary Couple" in the stage version was replaced with "Something Good" in the film. I am not a fan of "An Ordinary Couple" either, and in fact the song was going to be changed prior to the original Broadway opening, but Oscar Hammerstein was too ill to write a replacement song. "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good" can be added to both professional and amateur stage productions, even though they were written for the film. The Grazer production chose not to add "I Have Confidence", I guess.

I Just Know Everything said...

The songs that Frau Schraeder, Max, and Georg sing in the stage version are called "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It". "How Can Love Survive" is where the audience learns that Frau Schraeder is very wealthy and quite a dominant personality, unafraid to pursue what she desires. "No Way to Stop It" is an extremely powerful political song. Max and Frau Schraeder admit that while they do not necessarily side with the nazi party, they do not intend to risk their lives or livelihoods by going against this new movement. They plan to sit back and will try not to be affected by the situation. This disgusts Georg, and is the main reason that he chooses to end his relationship with Frau Schraeder. This song paints an incredible picture of the political situation in Austria. While in the film there are "the good guys" and "the bad guys", in the stage version, there are "the good guys", "the bad guys", and "the ambivalent guys".

So, that's my rant about "The Sound of Music". I'm not attempting to argue with you or change your opinion of the stage production you saw. I just wanted you to know that these changes you speak of were not necessarily changes. The film changed many things from the stage version. Some of these changes were for the better and some for the worse, in my opinion. But all in all, I adore the stage version.

Oh, and just a little bit of trivia since you mentioned something about Christopher Plummer's voice. His singing was dubbed in the film, as was Peggy Wood's.