Cher Public

Call me Madame

“To play La Pompadour—what a delightful task! To be La Pompadour—what a gruesome fate!” Thus spoke operetta superstar Fritzi Massary after researching her role as Louis XV’s official mistress in the Leo Fall operetta Madame Pompadour, which was written as a star vehicle for “die Massary” and had its first, hugely successful, performance in Berlin in 1922, followed by runs in Vienna and London.

Fall wrote a series of operettas in the later Viennese style, following the pattern of Die lustige Witwe. Madame Pompadour was his last, he died shortly afterwards; in fact the careers of the major participants in this piece’s creation were sadly curtailed. “Die Massary” had to flee to the US in the 1930’s because of her Jewish heritage and did not continue as a performer. One of the librettists, Rudolph Schanzer, who wrote the German text in collaboration with Ernst Welisch, committed suicide while under arrest by the Gestapo.

The real Madame de Pompadour, 1722-1764, in addition to being the king’s maîtresse-en-titre, was a patron of the arts, reflected in the opening scene of the operetta’s second act which depicts her receiving the painter François Boucher and artists from the Sèvres porcelain factory.

In this operetta, recorded on a single CD from live performances at the Vienna Volksoper in 2012, the Count René, straying from his wife whom he has left at his estate, is partying at an inn in Paris with his friend, a poet called Josef. When René picks up a pretty girl, she is found to be Madame de Pompadour in disguise, and he is arrested. She gets him freed on condition that both he and Josef will come home with her, Josef to write her a play, and René to be her personal bodyguard for the night shift. René is by now highly smitten with Pompadour and is happy to oblige.

In her bedroom, Pompadour is sought out for advice on how to win her husband’s love back by a distressed married lady who turns out to be both Pompadour’s long lost sister and René’s wife. When the King returns unexpectedly to find a strange man in his mistress’s bedroom, Pompadour is able to convince him that she was only acting as a marriage counsellor for her sister and brother-in-law.

This is a very tuneful piece with a lot of rubato-laden waltzes and peppy marches, you can really see how almost every number of this operetta could be a popular hit. Only a few snatches of the long spoken dialogue are included, enabling the music to be fitted onto a single CD. The huge title role is onstage and singing virtually the entire length of the piece after the first few minutes. It is apparent that the role was written for a star of great allure of voice and person, requiring a combination of cabaret-type singing and acting with the voice, together with operatic vocal ability.

Annette Dasch makes a good stab at it, with generally enjoyable results, successfully bringing comedy into her vocal performance with some passages of half-spoken delivery. The style does not seem to be something she was born to do however, more like something she has worked hard at accomplishing and her voice, though mostly very pleasant, tends to thinness at the top.

Honey-toned tenor Mirko Roschkowski as René is perfectly at home, his lyrical singing in his several waltz-duets with Dasch falling very pleasantly on the ear. My favourite part of the piece was a duet with Pompadour pretending to make predatory sexual advances at the terrified poet Josef, chasing him around the room in the number “Josef, ach Josef”. Character tenor Boris Pfeifer uses his not terribly attractive voice effectively in the role.

Yet another tenor turns up briefly as the King. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first when I looked at the cast and it said Heinz Zednik! I thought, what, that tenor from decades ago who was a distinguished Herodes in Salome and Mime in Siegfried? But yes, it really is him, in a very small part. The nicest thing I can say about his contribution to the recording, though, is that if you had been there to see him in the theatre I suppose it would have been nice to see a star from the past.

Very high level contributions from chorus and orchestra of the Volksoper and stylish conducting from young Berlin conductor Andreas Schüller. The recording includes quite a bit of stage noise and includes no libretto but there is a synopsis and a booklet with a lot of nice pics.

  • Camille

    Sounds like something right up Buster’s alley!

    Maîtresse-en-titre is a wonderful phrase. Merci, grimoaldo.

    Is Annette Dasch good or bad? She was supposedly bad when she sang here and then supposedly good at the Scala Lohengrin. Don’t quite know what to think.

    • Buster

      Annette, das bezaubernde Fräulein, is how she is known in operettaland, Camille.

    • Regina delle fate

      Camille -- I didn’t see her at La Scala, but I’ve seen her Elsa twice at Bayreuth and I find her vocally underwhelming, but she’s a good match for Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin. Both singers are very good-looking and I guess would make ideal leads in The Magic Flute in the bigger houses. Dasch’s voice sounds quite scratchy the more pressure she puts on.

      • Camille

        I see.
        Vogt was rather underwhelming as Florestan when I saw-heaed him so perhaps rhey make a lovely pair. Apparently he is more impressive as the Swan Knight but I would not know about that.

        Sort of ‘Barbie and Ken Sing Opera’ dolls, if you know what I mean.

        • Regina delle fate

          Hehe, Camille. That’s what I think, but some say he is the great Lohengrin de nos jours. To me he sounds drippy in everything, although he was quite a nice Alwa at Covent Garden. A friend saw him in the new Vienna production at the weekend and said that the audience went bananas for him.

          • oedipe

            Vogt is one of those tenors some people love, others loathe…
            I happen to be mesmerized by his voice.

            • Regina delle fate

              Fair enough, Oedipe. No-one is saying you’re wrong. Chacun à son goût as they say. I think I would enjoy him more if he sang roles to which his voice is better suited. I just don’t hear him as any kind of heroic tenor. He reminds me a bit of Gerhard Unger.

            • oedipe

              Well, but that’s what fascinates me about his singing: he (almost) has the timbre of a tenore di grazia, but he sings with much more heft, so he can take on Lohengrin, Parsifal, Erik, etc. and sound quite at ease in these roles.

            • I’ve heard great things about Vogt’s Lohengrin but haven’t heard it myself. His Prince opposite Opolais’s Rusalka is very good.

              Oedipe: I know what you mean about the voice, which is why I like his voice too. But I don’t know if I’d want to hear him as Florestan (which Camille mentioned).

            • oedipe

              BTW, he will sing Bacchus in Paris next season, alongside Mattila. I am quite looking forward to that.

            • Buster

              He is doing Tote Stadt in Hamburg next season:


              I loved his Parsifal, and FroSch emperor.

            • Buster

              Deborah Voigt doubles as Venus and Elsa!

            • oedipe

              A propos of Hamburg’s 2014-2015 season: Larmore will be singing La Belle Hélène and Debbie Voigt will be singing Elisabeth/Venus!

            • Buster

              Elisabeth -- I have not recovered from the shock yet, obviously.

            • Oedipe: Vogt as Bacchus sounds great! That should be quite a pairing.

            • la vociaccia

              I mean, I am variably mesmerized and irritated by his voice depending on the repertoire. I love parts of his Lohengrin and the more lyrical parts of Paul, Erik etc. but I thought his Siegmund was all wrong. There just isn’t a whole lot of impact in the lower reaches of his voice. But when he gets the chance to float higher at the end of Lohengrin it can be quite beautiful

            • Camille

              Poor Buster!
              Get to a brown bar, right away!!

            • Camille

              Well, as Bacchus, he would be quite welcome as for once it would not sound like a tonsillectomy is being performed simultaneously. Very happy to hear that Mattila will take on drippy old Ariadne. Ought to liven that fusty old complainer a LOT!

            • grimoaldo

              I am glad to see they will be performing “Almira” in Hamburg, Handel’s first opera, which had its premiere in Hamburg in 1705.

          • Camille

            Yes, indeed, according to La Diva Castafiore, who saw his MET debut as Lohengrin, he was spellbinding, ao what do I know? Alwa does sound like a capital idea to me as well!

            The Florestan which I heard seven years ago this autumn in L.A., brought me around, more or less by the end of the opera, and he was a good partner to Anja Kempe, the Leonore, but when he started with the “Gott…ecc”, it was the limpest, most bodiless pianissimo imaginable! I felt I was back in Roma listening to that concert of Fidelio in which armer Jacquino was deputised to sing the Florestan! A first, and a last, hopefully, in my opera souvenir book.

            He did come round and provide more voice and was more or less suitable but I shall never forget the shock his voice first gave me. “Gott!”,
            Imdeed. Nice looking tall guy, too. Never hurts in the Wagnerian tenor Welt.

            • redbear

              I first saw him as Florestan in Bordeaux. He sang his opening aria with so little apparent effort my impression was that he needed training in at least giving the impression that it was difficult.

  • Buster

    Thanks for this interesting review Grimaldo! Enzo Bordello saw Dasch in this, I believe, and liked her quite a bit.
    Roschkowski was outstanding in that Cologne Fledermaus too.

    Very sad they cut so much of the dialogue, though, especially since the final act famously consists of almost nothing but dialogue, so without it you would not have a clue what was the point.

    If you want to hear the work, you don’t have much choice, alas. An old radio recording with Gerda Scheyrer, and the Cologne recording by Curt Cremer, with actors speaking the lines, are both less than ideal too. Will have to get this.

    • Regina delle fate

      I’ve got it already Buster! But not played it yet. Grim -- thanks for the lovely review!

  • Sempre liberal

    I love the name Fritzi. Reminds me of Anna Kendrick’s character in Camp called Fritzi. A high school summer version of La Casa della Cieca.

  • PushedUpMezzo

    Here’s Massary in one of the hit numbers.

    Before she reached the US she stopped off in London to star in Noel Coward’s Operette. Here’s Dame Joan showing off her lighter side (and most precise diction!). There are some still photos of Coward and Massary in there.

    • grimoaldo

      That’s very interesting PUM, thanks for posting it. It isn’t really anything like the way Dasch performs the music, no reason why Dasch should copy the role’s creator but Dasch does sound, to me, like an opera singer self consciously trying to adapt to another genre. She is enjoyable, though.
      Yes Buster Act Three on this recording consists of an entr’acte and a sort of cabaret song with mandolin for Dasch, that’s it.
      Thanks for comments everyone!

      • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

        grimoaldo -- many thanks for bringing not only this production but the work itself to our attention.

        I only saw Annette Dasch once (Pamina, BSO, Dec 2006) and she did well, particularly in her scenes with Diana Damrau. I’ve seen her get flak here so I feel her good perf is worth a mention, too.

    • Buster

      I have posted these Massary interviews here before, but they contain so much essential information reposting them certainly does not hurt.

      Massary points out she always wanted real champagne, and real flowers on stage to create a realistic mood for herself, and, as a consequence, for the audience. Someone in the audience would never note she was drinking real champagne, of course, but for her it was essential.
      It is also worth pointing out that, unlike Dasch, Massary performed these works night after night, for weeks in a row, so clearly she had the chance to develop in them, and end up making something extra special out of them:

      Another great Pompadour:

      • Regina delle fate

        Erzsebet Hazy -- there’s a blast from the past! Thanks for the reminder, Buster.

        • Buster

          My pleasure, Regina. My favorite Saffi. Like Massary, she was great in Kalman too.

          • Camille

            A better Saffi than Sari, Buster? She is hard to beat so I should listen to Erszbet, as I love Saffi’s musick.

            • Buster

              Never heard Sari in this, Camille. The only Saffi’s I know well are Sena Jurinac (just splendid), Hilde Gueden (excellent too, but a little too ladylike), Pamela Coburn (on the dullish side) on the Harnoncourt, the only recording that does not hack the score to bits, and the very bland Julia Varady, on that godawful Boskovsky recording. Hazy is on the Stolz, the liveliest Zigeunerbaron I know, and she is on fire, very amusing. This is from another recording, in Hungarian:

  • papopera

    Poor Pompadour, née Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, ie Miss Fish.

    • grimoaldo

      Yes, in the opening number of the operetta the poet Josef is singing a ribald song making jokes about that.

      • Regina delle fate

        Oh dear -- that sounds a bit off colour, Grim. I must play it but I’ve just got a new Siroe from Göttingen to listen to first. The counter-tenor is a completely new name to me: Yosemeh Adjei. Anyone heard him?

        • papopera

          Answer & bio in Google. He is German, born in Nürnberg. Black Ghanaian origin.

  • Regina: Vogt sang a few Lohengrins at the Met last time we heard it (far too many years ago). He had a silvery, otherworldly timbre ideally suited to the role and no trouble at all filling our Old Man’s Barn. And he’s continued to sing it all over Europe ever since.

    The real Mme de Pompadour had (per Nancy Mitford’s biography) the great misfortune in her chosen profession of being frigid. She was sincerely in love with Louis XV, but he could not satisfy her. It was most distressing. And their children all miscarried. Finally, making a virtue of a necessity, she told the Pope she had taken a vow of chastity (and she meant it). He, rather flustered, demanded sternly that she return to her husband. This did not interest HIM, as he had gotten over his heartbreak and was consoling himself with several other ladies (and Pompadour’s hearty good wishes), but she wrote him offering to “reconcile,” and at his embarrassed refusal, she told the pope triumphantly that she’d tried! He had to allow her the sacraments. And her intimate (though no longer sexual) relationship with the king lasted the rest of her life, and cost France its possessions in Canada and Louisiana.

    (I have a battered copy of the Mitford bio if anyone would like to take it off my hands.)

    • MontyNostry

      Did Vogt and Voigt ever sing together? Maybe directed by Jon Voight.