Johann Strauss II, libretto by Victor Leon
Zurich Opera House, Switzerland
Simplicius, Johann Strauss II’s 1887 operetta, is based on Johann Jacob Christophal von Grimmelhauser’s 1688 picaresque novel Der Abentheurlische Simplicissmus Teutsch.
Simplicius opens with a hermit in a forest. Michael Vole sings and acts so seriously, you might momentarily think you are about to watch an opera rather than an operetta. He then disappears and does not return until the final moments.
None of the other characters can match him in depth. Simplicimus, his retarded son, who has excruciatingly naïve ideas about women, war and life, is press-ganged into the army. Martin Zysett fails to make him comic and likeable.
Watching online David Pountney’s 1999 production for Zurich Opera, conducted by Franz Welser-Most, I am not surprised Simplicius has never been popular with audiences and is rarely revived.
The libretto by Victor Leon is poor stuff, totally uninvolving and lacking in wit; and as for the the music, it is doubly disappointing, precisely because it is by Johann Strauss, The Waltz King, famous for his waltzes, polkas, quadrilles and marches. Musically, the high spot is the haunting Viennese waltz in act 3 which is milked and milked and milked for all its Viennese worth.
Pountney’s somewhat disparate production has surreal touches, some more effective than others, including an army of waif-like, unsmiling ghost children and a giant jackboot used by a general as a motorcade car. The most striking image is an oak tree with hanging, decaying corpses, a grim Goyaesque reminder that the frothy operetta mistaken identities action is actually taking place during the brutal 30 Years War (1618–1648).
Simplicius can be watched online on the WocomoMUSIC channel.
Reviewer: Robert Tanitch