The Desert Song – Studio Cast Recording 1958
Thirty years ago the operetta stage reached one of its highest points when Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song thundered across the stages of the world, thrilling audiences with its wonderful combination of romantic love songs and full-throated male singing ensembles. And when the dashing Red Shadow swept the love-struck Margot into his arms and carried her over the burning sands, he held every woman within hearing in the palm of his hand. In the album you hold in your hands, two great voices of today, Giorgio Tozzi and Kathy Barr, sparkling modern orchestral arrangements by Lehman Engel, and the finest recording techniques are all blended to bring you a new RCA Victor production of The Desert Song which does full justice to the beloved Romberg melodies. The rich, warm voice of Chicago-born, Milan-trained Giorgio Tozzi captures the excitement of “The Riff Song,” the dedicated love of “One Alone” and the beguiling romance of “The Desert Song.” You have only to listen to understand why Giorgio Tozzi is winning new laurels at the Metropolitan Opera each year. Beautiful young Kathy Barr is the Margot of our production. She sings the difficult and demanding role, including the lovely “Romance” and “The Sabre Song,” with all of the vocal wizardry which has won her the applause of musical comedy and night club audiences from San Francisco to Monte Carlo. Then there is the glorious singing ensemble to provide rich tones for the full-stage musical numbers, the likes of which are not being written any more. All in all, The Desert Song is a lovely recapture of a time gone by, told in the musical language of today by a pair of singing stars whose voices were made for each other. So put the disc on your player, lean back, and fall once more under the spell of The Desert Song.
– Leonard Louis Levinson © Radio Corporation of America, 1958 (From the original liner notes for LOP-1000)
Contemporary fans of musical theater do not know much about The Desert Song, and it can be difficult for them to imagine a Broadway world in which such an arch-romantic operetta could be a big hit. After all, it opened in 1926, at the same time the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart were hitting their stride, and the songs of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Vincent Youmans had defined a vibrant new sound for the American musical theater. How did The Desert Song, a straight-up operetta, become such a sensation at the height of the Jazz Age?
Sigmund Romberg’s soaring, butter-cream-frosting music is its calling card, embellished (he always wrote the melodies first) with an exuberant book and lyrics crafted by the collaboration of a young Oscar Hammerstein II, his mentor Otto Harbach, and Frank Mandel. The fraught plot they came up with involves the clash of cultures, mistaken identities, and a highly improbable romance, set in French-occupied North Africa. Most audiences know The Desert Song from its film adaptations, of which there have been three (in 1929, 1943, and 1953), all different. But The Desert Song made its mark in Broadway’s 1926–27 season, running a remarkable 471 performances – a blockbuster, in those days – spinning off successful European productions and several American touring companies.
Why? The Broadway critics were positive without being terribly enthusiastic about The Desert Song. The show hung on until, after a few months, it really began to catch on with audiences. The songs were one reason. Several of them became hits in sheet-music sales and cover recordings (radio was not yet a factor). With breakout favorites like the title song, the swaggering “Riff Song” and “One Alone,” the opulent score may be Romberg’s finest. The year before he wrote Show Boat with Jerome Kern, Hammerstein makes the most of his collaboration with Harbach (lyricist for “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” the year before). The lyrics match the ardor of the music in The Desert Song, but gracefully – “Blue heaven and you and I / And sand kissing a moonlit sky.” “It fits” was Romberg’s highest praise for a lyric, Hammerstein once recalled.
Another reason for the show’s cachet is the subject matter – “exotic,” culture-clash romances (think Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik) were all the rage in 1926, and this one even managed to be a little au courant. The hero of The Desert Song is a French officer who (not a soul suspects) has a secret identity as the Red Shadow, leader of a band of Arab rebels called the Riffs. The example of Lawrence of Arabia inspired the character, which in turn – given the universal popularity of The Desert Song – must have had something to do with inspiring the dual identity of Clark Kent and Superman. In fact, The Desert Song has its clever, surprising moments, and refreshingly little of the precious sentimentality of other operettas. Put it all together, and it sounds like a hit, doesn’t it?
When this recording was made, Giorgio Tozzi, who sings the Red Shadow, was in the early stages of his operatic career, when he was also the singing voice of Rossano Brazzi in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The vibrant Kathy Barr, as the heroine Margot, was discovered by Mario Lanza and, at the time, was an RCA Victor artist. Broadway fans will recognize Peter Palmer – Broadway’s original Li’l Abner – who sings the role of Sid Al Kar, the Red Shadow’s lieutenant. With that indefatigable advocate for operetta, Lehman Engel, conducting fresh new orchestrations, this recording recaptures the spirit of The Desert Song and the glory of its romantic score.
– David Foil, 2012
Pierre Birabeau, also known as The Red Shadow: Giorgio Tozzi Margot Bonvalet: Kathy Barr Sid Al Kar: Peter Palmer Captain Paul Fontaine: Warren Galjour General Birabeau: Eugene Morgan All music composed by Sigmund Romberg Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, and Frank Mandel Orchestra conducted by Lehman Engel