Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Elisabeth & Death

I grew up with parents who loved (and still do love!) musicals. I've seen a fair number of the old ones on stage :
   Brigadoon, the Man of LaMancha, Oklahoma!, the Sound of Music, South Pacific, the Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, 1776, the King & I, and West Side Story

some of the newer ones:
  Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Miss Saigon, and Mamma Mia

...and I've also enjoyed the Disney Movie-turned stage musicals like:
  Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, and the Lion King.

I've seen others on TV or DVD and I attended the spring musical every year while I was teaching, but the above is what I recall seeing performed by professionals or semi-professionals. I hope I appreciated the theater experience when I was young, but I surely do now as I look back. Every musical I've seen has at least several songs that I really like and love to sing along with - when I'm alone! I've only seen the Lion King and Tarzan in German, and I actually prefer the German version of Tarzan.

There is an Austrian musical that will probably never make it into the English language (though it has been translated from the original German into six other languages including Finnish and Korean) because it is about a story unknown to most Americans. The musical is entitled Elisabeth, and it's about the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Hungary - affectionately called Sissi. She was a beautiful Bavarian princess whose sister was supposed to marry Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, but Franzi fell in love with Sissi instead. Her story is as magical and tragic as that of Princess Diana. Sissi was young and beautiful, full of life, yearning for love but also freedom, wanted to decide for herself how her children would be raised, and was plagued by depression and weighted down by the rules of court and others' expectations of her. The musical was first performed in Vienna in 1992, but her story had been portrayed in several films before the film (trilogy) was released with Romy Schneider in the title role in the late 1950s.

portrait of Sissi by Xaver Winterhalter
I saw the musical last year, though only on DVD. There were several songs I had heard from it and really liked, and they were even better when I understood the plot and characters of the musical. Much of the rest of the musical, though...merp. It's very severe and somewhat techno - I don't know how else to describe it. But that's not really the point of this post.

After seeing a few scenes on Youtube, I noticed that there's a raging debate about who is the better Sissi and who is the better Death. That's right - Death is the second most important character in the musical - Emperor Franz Josef is just the guy married to Sissi. So the one school of thought says the original pair (Pia Douwes and Uwe Kröger) can't be surpassed and really embody the characters as they should be portrayed. The other school says the second best known pair (Maya Hakvoort, who took over for Pia after two years, and Máté Kamarás, who assumed the role of Death in 2003 and is playing him again now in the Germany-Austria tour) hit the mark.

I have watched several key scenes with both pairs, and I can fully understand the debate. Following is the final scene with both pairs. Choose carefully which one you watch first, because often the one we like best is the one we see first.

Pia and Uwe (forgive her the voice slip near the beginning; it happens):

Maya and Máté:

Seriously, Gänsehaut pur (pure goosebumps)! Sissi was assassinated in Genf by an Italian anarchist whose target was actually a different dignitary who changed his travel plans and didn't show up that day. He stabbed her in the heart with a small dagger, hence Death's passionate kiss at the end of the scene above. Sissi was anorexic and physically weak, depressed and lonely due in part to the death of her son nine years earlier, and had she known Death was coming that day, she probably wouldn't have minded. That is the scene in the clips above and my brief explanation for why she approaches Death somewhat hesitantly but mostly with relief. Throughout the musical Death has accompanied her and watched her, has sung and danced with her, and reminded her that she will be his and only his in the end, which is, in fact, true for us all.

For me, one version shows Death as he probably is - cold, emotionless, pale as a dead fish. It's a brilliant theatrical depiction. The other shows Death as I hope he is when it's my turn to meet him, and I just melt watching them. The way he looks at her...sigh. Interestingly, both Deaths have great hair, don't you think?

So...what do you think? Which pair do you prefer?

Although the text is far better in German, here is my loose and unrhymed translation for those who are curious what they're singing to each other:

Der Schleier fällt (The Veil falls)

  The veil falls (or slips away)
  Step out of the shadows.
  I have yearned for you so.
  Don't keep me waiting.

  Turn the night into dawn.
  Let me be freed and safe.
  Erase my memories
  and give my spirit a place to rest.

  Let the world collapse.

  I want to drown with you in nothingness
  to rise again with you as fire
  and vanish into eternity.

  I laughed, I cried,
  was dejected and hoped anew.
  But no matter what I did,
  I stayed true to myself.

  The world will try in vain to find
  the meaning of my/your life.

  Because I belong only to myself!
  Because you belong only to me!

For a last treat, this is part of a Helene Fischer show that was aired a few years ago in which you hear the most well-known song from the musical ("Ich gehör nur mir" / "I belong only to myself") sung in the seven different languages in which the musical has been performed, by leads who have played the part. The last singer is the hostess, Helene Fischer, a popular deutsche Schlager singer.

The languages are: German, Hungarian, Japanese, Finnish, Korean, Dutch, Swedish, and German again.

Sissi's sepulcher to the left of the Kaiser's
their son Rudolf lies to the right
Kapuzinergruft, Wien/Vienna

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