Book Review: A Trip to Africa: A Comic Opera by Franz von Suppé

Franz von Suppé after Johann Strauss II, the most famous exponent of the Golden Age of Operetta in Vienna, is remembered today principally for his famous evergreen overtures, full of melody and orchestral panache, esp. Poet and Peasant, Light Cavalry, Pique Dame and Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. His actual operettas have survived only in two famous instances: Die schöne Galathea and Boccaccio. Yet it was he who, following on the example of Jacques Offenbach, created the Viennese operetta with his early work Das Pentionat.

It is so wonderful to see wider interest being taken in his many other forgotten works. This publication is a fine example of the new sense of investigation and scholarship now being expended on this rediscovery. Dario Salvi, a conductor who has specialized in the dance music of Imperial Vienna, is a key motivator in this process. Working with his wife Hanna, he has revived one of Suppé’s last great successes, Die Afrikareise. Working in the libraries and archives of Austria, Italy and the USA, he has collected all the scores still extant, many of them surviving from performances of Suppé’s operetta in the late 19c and early 20c (until 1922). He has compiled a coherent performing edition from these sources, and also in the process looked carefully at all the surviving libretti in at least three languages, From this careful study, he and his wife have presented a thorough comparative exercise that constitutes a Quellengeschichte, or critical study of the sources. Added to his, the authors have collected many illustrations from the various stage productions, costume designs, programme notes and posters that make for a fascinating iconography of this unusual and vivacious work.

The story of European tourists and their adventures in North Africa, especially Egypt, is of peculiar topicality in our own days of relentless international travel and tourism. It is fascinating to see how Suppé’s operetta responded to this emergent trend and fashion in the late 19c, a trend also relating back to the father of operetta, Jacques Offenbach.

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And it was indeed Offenbach who helped to channel other new elements of the age into the operetta ethos. The defeat of France in 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871 had changed the country politically and culturally. France, now the home of radical scientific discovery (like those of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie) and the new school of Impressionism, turned to a more overt form of political self-expression in the growing international trend to colonial expansion. In the rush for empire, Britain, France and Germany especially would be caught up in a race for global influence and dominance. Already Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798) and the Greek War of Independence (1821-30) had marked the growing decline of the Ottoman Empire. The Algerian adventure of the 1835-48 had seen France expand its influence aggressively into Africa, with the colonization of Algeria. In the 1850s a new fashion for Orientalism had found growing musical expression in the works of Félicien David (Le Désert, 1844), and would soon find a significant operatic voicd in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs des perles (1863), Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (1865) and Delibes’s Lakmé (1883). But these trends were now intensified by the hugely popular and influential novels of Jules Verne (1828-1905), whose fictional explorations of space, the oceans, the subterranean and foreign land set a mark on the age that culminated in Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). Practically the travel industry had already been initiated by the enterprising Thomas Cook who expanded his English excursion begun in 1841 into tours to Europe in 1855, and to the United States in 1865. Scientific discovery, geographical exploration, political imperialism, and a new interest in recreational travel, Offenbach, always alert to these social manifestations, adapted several of Verne’s novels for the operetta stage ( Le Voyage dans la lune, 1875, and Le Docteur Ox, 1877 ). The success of this trend had its effects on the Viennese theatre too.

Suppé, always alert to the fashions set in Paris, the home of operetta, produced several works (revues, or Ausstattungsstücke) on Jules Verne’s novels: Die Reise um die Erde in Achtzig Tage (1875); Zum Mond und unterm Meer (1876); Der Courier des Czaren, oder M. Strogoff’s Reise (1877). But he would bring out his own successful operetta reflecting these trends a few years later, Die Afrikareise (Operette in drei Aufzüge, with librettists: Richard Genée and M. West, and first performed in Vienna, at the Theater an der Wien, on 17 March 1883). The work ran for less than a month despite the presence of Alexander Girardi in the cast. While not in the same league as the other great Suppé successes, the work played profitably in European and American theatres, a success acknowledged in the publication of the score in Hamburg (Cranz, 1883) and the number of different productions in the US (New York, Boston).

This volume is a special contribution to musicology, and a significant step in the deepening research into Viennese operetta, and particularly to the life and work of Franz von Suppé. The book is beautifully produced, lovely to handle, and a credit to both the authors and the publisher.

Dr Robert Letellier, Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge


For more information about A Trip to Africa: A Comic Opera by Franz von Suppé and to purchase a copy, click here.

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