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Herbert: The Red Mill / Thompson, Ohio Light Opera Festival

Release Date: 12/18/2001 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 492/93   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Victor Herbert
Performer:  Jeffrey MillerWade WoodwardAnthony MaidaLucas Meachem,   ... 
Conductor:  J. Lynn Thompson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ohio Light Opera
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 42 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

One of the fascinating things about getting to know early specimens of American musical theater, like the operettas of Victor Herbert (1859–1924), is that one can hear the evolution of popular theater conventions at work. In Herbert’s earliest forays into the medium, such as the wittily perverse Wizard of the Nile (in which Cleopatra has “been a-Maying,” in the coy terms of 1895), the recipe was nine-tenths Gilbert and Sullivan with a dash of Offenbach, with a lushness of color and atmosphere trumping both. By the time of The Red Mill, his 17th operetta, in 1906, the comic relief had largely shifted from patter songs and prim mugging to the rawer stock types of early 20th-century vaudeville. The Red Mill was conceived partly as a star Read more vehicle for the duo Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone, who had risen to fame in the 1903 season for their antics as the Scarecrow and Tin Man in the Paul Tietjens-Baldwin Sloane Wizard of Oz. The pair had first met in a minstrel troupe, had a brief nightclub stint in New Orleans, and worked their way up to Chicago, New York, and then London vaudeville before entering “legitimate” Broadway theater. Theater historians regard them as pioneers who spawned many imitators, and who shaped an important brand of slapstick entertainment. Their roles in The Red Mill, as good-for-nothing con men and laze-abouts whose inner sense of entrepreneurship awakens when they are called upon to impersonate Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, set the tone for one of the most popular character types of Broadway theater through the 1940s, paving the way for the gangster characters in Kern and Gershwin musicals (such as Sitting Pretty and Oh, Kay!), and, even more prominently, in both Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate.

The Red Mill was, after Mlle. Modiste, Herbert’s second collaboration with Henry Blossom, who may well have been the best of the many librettists with whom he worked. The combination of Blossom’s articulate libretto and a strong score, as well as the attraction of the show’s two comic stars (and Broadway’s first illuminated sign, a large windmill with electrically-powered moving arms, which stood in front of the theater), ensured that it would be the biggest success of the 1906 season. However, Blossom’s strength was the ability to forge a strong story from aspects of adventure, mistaken identity, and ethnic color. The added dimension of Montgomery and Stone’s slapstick is both diverting and jarring, rendering the show half way between the traditional romantic operetta for which Herbert was famous and the brasher Tin-Pan-Alley style that would later predominate in the hands of Cohen, Berlin, Kern, and Gershwin. Indeed, it is the latter style that has Herbert here turning out his most memorable melodies, as with “Go While the Going’s Good” and, especially, “In Old New York,” (both vehicles for Montgomery and Stone), while the Romantic mode fails to reach the heights of inspiration of Herbert’s most successful show, Naughty Marietta.

Set in a small Dutch town in 1900, the operetta opens in front of an old red windmill. Tina, the daughter of the innkeeper Willem, tells her father that she wants to become an actress. A pair of rough Americans down on their luck (and bearing the tiresomely symmetrical names Kid Conner and Con Kidder) attempt to escape the inn without paying their hotel bill, but are caught by the local Burgomaster, who forces them to work as a waiter and visitors’ guide until their bill is paid. Meanwhile the Burgomaster has promised his daughter Gretchen to the old Governor of Zeeland, despite the fact that she is in love with the supposedly penniless sea captain Christian. After Conner and Kidder convince Tina that they can make her a Broadway star, they agree to help Gretchen elope. Learning of the planned elopement, the Burgomaster locks Gretchen in the mill—which is supposedly haunted because of a tragic event many years before—and imprisons Christian. However, his sister Bertha has helped Gretchen to escape, and the first act ends in confusion.

The second act brings about the expected clichéd plot resolutions, with attention shifting to the antics of Conner/Kidder and Tina as they try to cover for the disappearance of Gretchen. The Governor arrives to reveal himself as a refugee from a Gilbert and Sullivan patter role, boasting of his wandering eye in “Every Day Is Lady’s Day with Me.” He immediately runs into Aunt Bertha, flirts with her, recalls their previous love, and decides he would rather marry her than Gretchen anyway, especially after the older woman reveals that she is even wealthier than her niece. When the clueless Burgomaster telegrams Amsterdam to request the services of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (who are also fictional in this realm, to the mirth of everyone else in the cast), Conner and Kidder seize the chance to impersonate them. With a roundabout ostentation, Gretchen is found, but a heavily veiled Bertha substitutes for her at the wedding, obviating the need for an elopement. Furthermore, Christian is revealed as the son of a wealthy banker, and the operetta ends with a double wedding.

By bringing The Red Mill to the stage and thence to disks, the Ohio Light Opera (and now Albany Records) have vitally enhanced our access to and understanding of the early evolution of the American musical. Here is a major turn-of-the-century work, one of the prolific Herbert’s biggest successes, marking the audible transition from European models to Tin-Pan Alley, given its first complete recording in excellent sound, with original scoring and mostly first-rate and idiomatic singing. I found the inclusion of the spoken dialogue to be especially helpful, because the songs acquire a multifacetedness in context that they lack when heard in isolation. Although some listeners will find the idiom—and the humor—quite dated, they seem less so when delivered as a package, enthusiastically and without undue irony; and if the dialogue annoys, it can be mostly programmed out. For many of us, Herbert’s voice has been lying mute, in dusty piano-vocal volumes, a theatrical legend pressed flat between the pages of history books. This disk, and the others in what promises to be a series of complete, freshly-minted recordings of Herbert’s major works (Eileen was issued on Newport Classics 85615, Albany released Naughty Marietta last year, and the Ohio Light Opera will be presenting Sweethearts 13 times in its 2002 season, possibly with a view to recording) revitalize the presence of this first consistently successful composer of the Broadway stage.

There are no real weaknesses in the cast. In the comic soubrette role of Tina, Megan Loomis sparkles, animating the foursquare melodic turns of the slyly-texted “Mignonette” and showing a reckless comic flair in the giddy “Whistle it!” (which needs such flair in order to avoid a maudlin sense of datedness). In that number, she cavorts deftly with Cassidy King and Anthony Maida, who infuse the comic Kidder-Conner duo with the kind of New York gangster twang that would become a staple of Broadway shows in the vaudeville era. Although in other recordings, these singers have demonstrated “legitimate” vocal ability, they remain in character throughout their three songs and deliver their stage business with a polished sense of timing. Maida, in particular, has an even greater gift for the kind of comic mugging that provides the spark in late 19th-century lyric theater (as he showed in OLO’s recording of Utopia Limited).

Nancy Maria Balach, a multi-season veteran of the recorded OLO productions, possesses a light, flexible soprano, and blends smoothly with tenor Brian Woods in the lilting waltz song “Moonbeams Shining,” the signature melody and best-known song from the score. Their first duet is another captivating waltz song, “The Isle of Our Dreams”; one can clearly sense that Herbert’s fluency with this most Central European of dance types was born from his years playing in Eduard Strauss’s orchestra. Woods has a firm yet light timbre and is one of the finer tenors to grace these OLO productions.

As accomplished as are the performances of the romantic and comic leads, it is the members of the older couple that steal the show, with their remarkable character numbers. Wade Woodward marks the patter-tenor models for the Governor of Zeeland more with his diction and delivery than with qualities inherent in his music. Ann Marie Wilcox colors the role of Aunt Bertha with some overdone Mae Westisms, but also delivers the most surprising musical gem of the show, the “Legend of the Mill.” This strophic ballad, which relates a ghost story that seems to mirror Gretchen’s current predicament, is set as a striking funeral march, scored with dark colors and harmonized with a modal sophistication that would not be out of place in one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, which were, after all, more or less contemporary. Only the comparative banality of the text marks it as a “lesser” artwork.

The operetta’s opening chorus, “By the Side of the Mill,” as often with Herbert, leaps out of his Gilbert and Sullivan mode, but foreshadows the American style that would culminate in Kern’s Showboat; elsewhere the connection is made clearer through the use of cakewalk rhythms and other vestiges of the Ragtime Era.

If occasionally the actors’s Dutch (or mock-Dutch) accents seem merely thick and awkward, or the ancient jokes fall with threadbare emptiness, these are small prices to pay for a major undertaking by this unsung Ohio company. Audience noise in this live recording is limited to applause at the end of each act, and stage sounds are not obtrusive. Splicing of dialogue among different performances is more smoothly handled here than in the case of their Naughty Marietta (also reviewed in this issue). Recommended for lovers of light music and operetta.

Christopher Williams, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

The Red Mill by Victor Herbert
Performer:  Jeffrey Miller (Voice), Wade Woodward (Voice), Anthony Maida (Voice),
Lucas Meachem (Voice), Ann Marie Wilcox (Voice), Cassidy King (Voice),
David Wannen (Voice), John Sumners (Voice), John Musick (Voice),
Nancy Maria Balach (Voice), Megan Loomis (Voice), Brian Woods (Voice),
Jessie Wright Martin (Voice), Rebecca Comerford (Voice), Jonathan Stinson (Voice),
Arlene Simmonds (Voice), Brian Carlton (Voice)
Conductor:  J. Lynn Thompson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ohio Light Opera
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1906; USA 
Date of Recording: 2001 
Length: 101 Minutes 30 Secs. 
Language: English 

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