By the time composer Victor Herbert began work in 1905 on his comic opera Mlle. Modiste, he already had 14 Broadway shows to his credit and a reputation as America’s most prominent composer of stage music. With Metropolitan Opera star Fritzi Scheff in the title role of Fifi, the hatgirl with dreams of a stage career, Mlle. Modiste opened on Christmas Day of 1905 and ran for 202 performances. Herbert’s musical score remains one of the supreme gems in the American operetta canon and it is fitting that the Ohio Light Opera celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth with this delightful operetta.
R E V I E W S:
"This 'live, onstage' recording from Ohio Light Opera's 2009 season preserves all the originalRead more sweetness and vitality of Herbert's lovely score." (Opera News)
"Herbert was without a doubt a marvelous melodist, a terrific orchestrator, certainly the best American exponent of operetta at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. ...no serious operetta fan will want to be without this." (American Record Guide)
HERBERT Mlle. Modiste • Michael Borowitz, cond; Sara Ann Mitchell (Fifi); Todd Strange (Étienne); Julie Wright (Cecily); Jacob Allen (Gaston); Boyd Mackus (Count); Dennis Jesse (Hiram); Jessie Wright Martin (Mrs. Bent); John Gerhard (François); Ohio Light Op O & Ch • ALBANY TROY 1146 (2 CDs: 98:09 Text and Translation) Live: Wooster 2009
Mlle. Modiste (1905) appeared between two of Herbert’s other big hits: Babes in Toyland (1903) and The Red Mill (1906). For a while, Mlle. Modiste was one of Herbert’s most revived shows; five revivals between 1906 and 1929, many of them featuring opera star Fritzi Scheff, who made Fifi one of her signature roles. Two of the musical numbers, “Kiss me again” and “I want what I want when I want it,” enjoy a breakaway popularity. The score has other gems, especially in the second act. “Ze English language” is particularly clever. Herbert’s score is heavily reminiscent of the late-19th-century Viennese waltz-rich operettas and the patter element from Gilbert and Sullivan. Like other Herbert scores, Mlle. Modiste is always tuneful, even if some of the numbers are repetitively thump-de-thump-de-thump. The plot, considered one of Herbert’s better (Henry Blossom wrote the book and lyrics) stories, is little more than a thread used to link an assortment of cute songs. It is pleasant fare, providing two hours of diverting entertainment and occasionally catching the ear with an especially good tune, and even causing a few smiles. The singers at the Ohio Light Opera rise to the occasion, especially Sara Ann Mitchell as Fifi and Jacob Allen as Gaston. There are no liabilities in the cast; they comprise an ensemble with good to very good voices that understands the genre. Everyone’s diction is clear, and the recorded balances allow the listener to catch nearly every word.
In some OLO recordings, the singing is often better than the acting, with the occasional stretch of sluggish pacing in the dialogue portions; but in this Mlle. Modiste, the nearly 30 minutes of dialogue (scattered throughout the opera) move along at a nice pace. Overall, the acting is in the same merry spirit of the play and advances the plot with genial good humor. The action takes place in France and most of the characters are French, but—except for Gaston in his song “Ze English Language”—the cast eschews attempts at sounding French. Some of their accents are strikingly Midwestern, providing little contrast to the two characters that are supposed to be from Keokuk, Iowa.
Quibbles aside, this is a good performance where the plusses far outweigh any minuses. Mlle. Modiste will probably never be the popular equal of Fledermaus, La vie parisienne, etc., but there are enough pleasures to be found to make hearing this OLO recording an entertaining experience and not just being privy to a resurrected piece of America’s musical history. At the moment, this is the only recording of this operetta. In the 1960s, Reader’s Digest included nine selections from Mlle. Modiste in its anthology of 18 shows under the title “Treasury of Great Operettas.” Several of the numbers were abbreviated, and Herbert’s orchestrations were not used. When nine of the operettas were released in a three-CD set, Mlle. Modiste was not included.
Many of OLO albums were recorded in performance. This one seems to be recorded without an audience present. There are no audible stage noises and no audience responses, including end-of-act applause. Mlle. Modiste is a cute show, and the OLO forces bring it merrily to life.
Boyd Mackus (Voice),
Dennis Jesse (Baritone),
Jessie Wright Martin (Voice),
John Gerhard (Voice)
Ohio Light Opera
Period: Romantic Written: 1905