Viennese operetta is an acquired taste, and I'm not entirely sure I've ever acquired it. Johann Strauss is great, of course. But every operetta by Lehar or Kalman or Suppe contains a few good, excerptable numbers and a ton of repetitive filler, and the librettos of most of these things are generally awful -- incomprehensible mistaken-identity complications, sodden sentimentality, and not a drop of the wit or satire that you get in the librettos of the best French or English operettas. (It's not a coincidence that Johann Strauss's best operetta, Die Fledermaus, is based on a story by Offenbach's librettists, Meilhac and Halevy, and a very cynical, unsentimental story at that.)
Still, there are a few Viennese operettas I never tire of listening to, and one of them, which I've been listening to a lot lately, is A Waltz Dream by Oscar Straus. Though it was a big hit at its 1907 premiere, it's not all that well-known now; there's only one available recording (and it only seems to be available in Germany), and it's not performed much outside of German-speaking countries. But it's one of the most tuneful of all post-Strauss operettas: Straus was almost as talented a melodist as his near-namesake.
But what really sets A Waltz Dream apart from most other Viennese operettas is the plot, which instead of mechanical farce or gooey sentiment, offers a clever and even modestly risque story. It's also a story that mirrors the music: just as Straus is paying homage to a bygone era of Viennese music, the story treats Vienna as a place that, even in 1907, already exists more in legend than in reality. Not a minute of the story actually takes place in Vienna; it's set in the tiny kingdom of Flausenthurm, where the Princess, Helene, has just married a Viennese man, Niki. We soon find that Niki was more or less forced into the marriage after what he thought was just an innocent flirtation with Helene, and he is homesick for Vienna, the only place where he can be truly happy. On his wedding night, he tells Helene's father, the King, that he will fulfil his ceremonial duties as a Prince consort but that he has no intention of actually consummating the marriage. The King is crushed at the idea that the dynasty may not live on, but things are worse for Helene, who truly loves Niki.
Niki sneaks out with his friend Montschi to listen to a touring Viennese orchestra -- not only because they play Viennese music, but because it's an all-girl orchestra. Niki is attracted to the leader of the orchestra, Franzi, who reciprocates. But when Helene discovers where Niki has been going, Franzi realizes that Niki's place is really with his wife, and that Niki was more in love with what she represented (memories of Vienna) than her. Franzi cuts things off with Niki and leaves for Vienna, but not before she has taught Helene to dress and act like a modern Viennese woman. And when Niki sees his wife with a Viennese makeover, he finally realizes how beautiful she is, and the curtain falls as they prepare to carry on the Flausenthurm dynasty after all.
Okay, so it's not a dramatic masterpiece, but it's a better plot than most Viennese operettas have. But of course, it's the music, not the plot, that's the really important thing here, and Straus's is some of the best of its kind. Unlike his contemporary Lehar, who tried to make operetta music sound more up-to-date with imitations of well-known serious composers -- particularly Puccini, who should have gotten royalties for some of the the stuff Lehar wrote after The Merry Widow -- Straus wrote deliberately backward-looking music that sought to recapture the charm and deceptive simplicity of Johann Strauss. The songs in A Waltz Dream are not big sappy operatic wannabes, like Lehar wrote; nor are they influenced by American musical comedy, as Kalman often was. Instead Straus writes short, strongly rhythmic, instantly-memorable tunes, one after the other. The hero's introductory song, "Ich hab' mit Freuden angehort," consists of a series of little tunes in different Viennese-operetta styles: the slow waltz, the fast waltz, the polka. It should be a structural mess, but it works wonderfully because the tunes are so good.
Other highlights from the score include the big waltz number, "Da draussen im duftigen Garten," a far better melody than the Merry Widow Waltz; Helene's almost equally exquisite waltz tune, "Ich hab' einen Mann," the opening chorus of act 2, which incorporates a section that is whistled instead of sung; Franzi's song, "G' stellte Madeln resch und fesch," another collection of little tunes in contrasting rhythms and styles; the piccolo duet, with its nutty refrain "Piccolo, piccolo, tsin-tsin-tsin" (and whose first line, "Lehn Deine Wang' Ahn Meine Wang'" -- "Lay your cheek against my cheek" -- is cheekily lifted from a Heinrich Heine poem). The third act is a little thin, as third acts tend to be in these things -- there's not much left to do but wrap up the plot, sing a couple of numbers, and throw in a lot of reprises -- but overall it's one of the best, perhaps the best, of Viennese operetta scores after the death of Strauss.
The recording seems to be somewhat abridged -- the whole thing, with dialogue, fits on one 80-minute CD -- but it will do. Made in Munich in 1970, it features Nicolai Gedda as Niki and many of Munich's best singers of the period, including Annelise Rothenberger, Edda Moser and Brigitte Fassbaender.
In 1931, Ernst Lubitsch made A Waltz Dream into a movie, The Smiling Lieutenant. The movie is magnificent, one of the funniest movies even Lubitsch ever made, and a guaranteed hit in a theatrical screening (I've been fortunate enough to see it at three different Lubitsch retrospectives, and each time, the audience burst into applause at the end). But as he did with his film of The Merry Widow, Lubitsch relegated most of the score to background music. Straus, who was in Hollywood at the time, composed some new songs that were more in the range of the film's star, Maurice Chevalier, and his non-singing costars, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins; they're okay songs, but they're not nearly in a class with the score of the operetta. No matter; if you ever get a chance to see the film -- it's never been available on VHS or DVD, only on laserdisc, so this may be problematic -- see it.