Opera to Love: The New Moon
At this time of year, when I find myself herded indoors by the early dark and the cooler temperatures, I watch more films, miniseries, and great performances. In 1989, the NYC Opera House did a production of an operetta. I am forever grateful that my father recorded it for me as I have been unable to find it anywhere. Hosted by Beverly Sills and aired on PBS, Lincoln Center’s The New Moon starring Richard White (of Disney’s Gaston a la Beauty and the Beast fame) is by far my favorite operetta.
In 1928, Hungarian born and Viennese trained composer Sigmund Romberg debuted a new operetta on Broadway. Romberg provided the music; Oscar Hammerstein II, Frank Mandel, and Laurence Schwab wrote the lyrics. The collaborative effort was a huge success, dubbed Broadway’s last hit operetta, and called The New Moon.
Set in New Orleans during the French Revolution, the plot revolves around Robert Mission, a French aristocrat with revolutionary tendency who has sold himself as a bond-servant to New World plantation owner Monsieur Beaunoir to escape the Paris authorities who seek him in connection with the death of a prominent aristocrat. Robert Mission is not a very good bond-servant, what with being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In fact, he’s downright terrible. For starters, he’s fallen in love with Monsieur Beaunoir’s only daughter, Marianne, and makes no attempt to hide it from anyone. Now, if you’ll remember your history, French aristocracy- even that aristocracy removed from the Royal Court to tend their plantations in the New World- were not keen on the idea of servants marrying above their stations. (You might say it was this adherence to hierarchy that fanned the flames of revolution and tolled the knell that resounded Viva la France among the masses.) Secondly, Robert’s not that good at being ordered around, yet another problem when you are in service.
However, things get a trifle more complicated for Robert. His manservant, Alexander, who also is a fugitive and in hiding and provides much of the comic interludes in this operetta, finds out that Paris authorities have crossed the ocean in pursuit of Robert. Vicomte Ribaud and his trusty (and squirrelly) sidekick Fouchette are bound for Beaunoir’s home to ferret out Robert Mission and the men who stole away with him. Ribaud will find them and when he does, he will send them back to France where they will face the impartial judge, Madame La Guillotine. And just how does Ribaud plan to smoke Robert out? With a ball. Because every great investigator knows that no criminal can resist the allure of a masquerade ball with wine, women, and Viennese waltzing. Perhaps it takes an aristocrat to know another aristocrat’s Achilles heel…
Regardless, an elaborate ball is planned with the lure being Monsieur Beaunoir’s daughter. A lottery is instated; each man is given a number and the lucky winner will win a dance and kiss from Marianne. As Robert is incapable of resisting such a lure- remember he is French aristocracy, pro-revolution or not; it’s a safe bet that he hasn’t been told no too many times in his life- Ribaud’s plan seems to be perfect.
The night of the ball arrives and Robert shows up kitted out in that ridiculous Rococo regalia of the period, complete with white slipper satin breeches and curl-toed heeled shoes to say nothing of the ridiculous white wig… ANYWAY. As luck would have it, Alexander is handing out the numbers and orchestrates it that Robert will win the dance and the kiss. I have to say that this might be my favorite part of the operetta. The song Robert Mission and Marianne sing to each other here is wildly romantic, even if the lyrics are deceptively simple. Have no fear- the demand on the singers is anything but simple. Wanting You is a song I’m surprised hasn’t been recorded more. It’s one of those gems in the musical world that has been overlooked and I cannot figure out why.
Hop, skip, jump. Post-kiss. Ribaud pounces. He arrests Robert and Alexander and carts them off to Beaunoir’s ship bound for France, aptly titled the New Moon. Marianne decides that she’s going to go too, though absolutely NOT because she cares a single iota for Robert. No, really, that’s not the reason. She’s in love with Captain Duval; she’s agreed to accept his hand in marriage and she can’t bear to be parted from him. If you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned him before, it’s because Duval doesn’t really matter. We all know this is a rouse. A very obvious rouse. Because Marianne is in love with Robert. She may protest, but methinks the lady doth protest too much, if you know what I mean. For certain, Ribaud does.
Here is where one of the most famous songs from the operetta is sung: Lover Come Back To Me. This song is wildly popular. Every jazz singer and his/her mother have recorded it. Marianne is walking the deck of the ship. Other than the men who need to be there to keep watch and steer, it’s deserted. It is late at night. And, because she knows no one is around to hear her, Marianne sings this beautiful love song to Robert.
You see, the real reason she’s insisted on coming on this voyage is so she and her maidservant, Julie- who happens to be in love with Alexander- can distract the guards and free the men they love. How they plan to do this with no route of escape- what with them being aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean making escape rather tricky- is beyond me. But, it never comes to that. Rather, Phillipe, brother in arms to Robert, pirate, and overall stout-hearted man, commandeers the vessel, and frees his friends. From there, they take over the ship and sail to the Isle of Pines where they plan to set up a colony that embraces the tenants of the Revolution. And, as luck would have it, Beaunoir’s cargo to France is a bevy of brides - isn’t that convenient. So, the first law enacted is that every man (as there are a ton of them- sailors and pirates and prisoners, oh my) must take a wife.
Robert claims Marianne. But, here’s something you have to know about Marianne. She does not like being told what to do. While Robert might have sounded the cry of Give Me Some Men Who Are Stout-Hearted Men, he finds himself in the uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing position of being shackled with a stubborn hearted woman. She agrees to marry him, but in name only, which drives the man nuts for the first year on the island.
Finally, on her own terms, Marianne relents. And just in time, too, as Ribaud has contacted the French authorities about his whereabout and imprisonment. A ship appears on the horizon and it’s French. Ribaud can taste victory. But, when the French officers arrive on shore, they want to shake Robert’s hand. You see, in the ensuing time, the Revolution has been won and the French aristocracy is being beheaded. With a cheery Off With His Head, Ribaud is taken aboard ship to face his dire punishment and Robert and Marianne live happily ever after in the halcyon utopia of the Isle of Pines.
It’s a silly operetta. Really. But, it has something for everyone. The music is superb. The songs span the gamut: from silly to serious, lighthearted to passionate, tragic to galvanizing. The secondary characters add the flavor to make this mirepoix. While Robert and Marianne are the salt and pepper, Alexander, Clotilde, Besac, Julie, and Philippe provide the herbs and spices.
I tried to find all the songs on youtube from the 1989 Lincoln Center production, but alas, I only found a handful. Below the videos are my commentary. I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do. And, if you’re interested in seeing the entire production, MGM did do a film back in the ‘30s starring the dynamic duo of Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald. While it’s not a faithful adherence to the plot of the original, it’s still a beautiful retelling of it.
If you had to pick, what would you say your favorite opera, operetta, or musical is? Let us know what and why in the comments below. I know I appreciate your input. Have a wonderful day.
And just in case you’re asking: what’s the difference between an opera and operetta? Not a heck of lot, truth be told. Operettas are generally more lighthearted in nature and subject. Operas tend to be a touch more melodramatic- or a heap more, depending on the opera; Ring of the Nibelung, anyone?
Furthermore, where an opera will call on ‘the application of every known resource of musical effect’- vocal, instrumental, choreographical, dramatic, architectural, etc, operettas emphasize the dramatic more because there is spoken dialogue. In many ways, operettas are almost akin to ballad operas in which popular songs comprise the musical score (think Moulin Rouge). If opera is on one side and musicals are on the other, operettas are the bridge between the two.