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Franz LEHÁR (1870 – 1948)
Zigeunerliebe (Gipsy Love) - Romantic operetta in three acts, First version (1910)
Johanna Stojkovic (soprano) – Zorika; Dagmar Schellenberger (soprano) – Ilona; Zoran Todorovich (tenor) – Józsi; Bernhard Schneider (tenor) – Jonel; Ksenija Lukić (soprano) – Jolán; Stefan-Alexander Rankl (tenor) – Kajetán; Markus Köhler (baritone) – Dragotin; Raphaela Schulze (soprano) – Frau von Kérem; Andreas Hörl (bass) – Mihaly; Andrej Bielow (solo violin); Katerina Zlatniková and Agnes Szakály (cymbal)
NDR-Chor, NDR Radiophilharmonie/Frank Beermann
Recorded at NDR (North German Radio) Hannover, Grosser Sendesaal, January and September 2003
CPO 999 842 – 2 [52:24 + 66:48]

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In spite of his incomparable success as an operetta composer, Franz Lehár nourished the dream of writing a "real" opera. Zigeunerliebe, probably comes closest to this dream, even if Giuditta from 1935, his last stage work, also had operatic ambitions and was premiered at the Vienna State Opera.

With two world-wide successes behind him (Die lustige Witwe [The Merry Widow] and Der Graf von Luxemburg [Count of Luxembourg]) Lehár in 1910 came up with something quite different, breaking the rules, so to speak, of what an operetta should be. First of all this is a ‘dream drama’, the subtitles of the three acts reading Marienacht (Lady Night), Zorikas Traum (Zorika’s Dream) and Das Erwachen (The Awakening). Secondly the structure of the work is far more operatic than any earlier operetta with often long continuous stretches of music involving several characters. There are several solos (arias if you like) but they mostly appear within this ensemble framework. Thirdly the cast is unusually large with two major soprano parts and two important tenor parts plus the usual comic couple and a major baritone part, added to which are a number of minor parts. It is also a long work for an operetta. This recording plays for almost two hours and then there is no spoken dialogue at all included. I don’t know how much spoken dialogue there is since the libretto in the booklet only prints what is sung, but anyway Lehár didn’t go the whole way and produce a through-composed work. In that respect it still follows the convention, but it could just as well be regarded as a Singspiel. Lovers of Lehár’s "traditional" operettas need not, however, fear that they won’t like the piece; over and over again throughout the score we come across typical examples of Lehár’s soaringly beautiful melodies. Sweet? Yes! Sentimental? Yes, sometimes, but we like them that way, don’t we? What also should be mentioned is the Hungarian influence that permeates the music. Lehár was of course Hungarian by birth and here he uses the csardas quite frequently, so much so that one sometimes feels that this could just as well have been composed by his fellow-countryman Kálmán. Die Csardasfürstin isn’t far away. Since Józsi, the leading tenor, is a "Zigeuner primas" (the leading fiddler in the gypsy band), the solo violin plays a prominent part in the operetta, very well played by Andrej Bielow. In the orchestral texture two cymbals (cymbalom in Hungarian, Hackbrett in provincial German) are so important for the local colour that the names of the players appear in the cast list.

The plot isn’t easy to summarize in a few lines: Zorika, a rich boyar’s daughter, is supposed to be engaged tp Jonel, a boy from her own class. On the day of her engagement she meets Józsi, the wild gypsy with the magical violin. Shall she choose him or Jonel? In act 2, which is her dream, she has lived with Józsi for two years and their love has turned into a nightmare, which, when she wakes up in act 3, makes it easy to get engaged to Jonel. Józsi has an affair with Ilona, both in the dream and in real life but in the end she turns him down and they separate. This is perhaps a happy ending, since they would probably not have lived a contented life together, but it certainly is not a conventional Happy End. From that point forwards Lehár seldom chose librettos with happy endings, The Land of Smiles being one obvious example.

After the elegantly orchestrated overture, which is of the potpurri-type, pompous, sentimental and joyful, the curtain rises in the midst of a raging thunderstorm. This is graphically illustrated in the music, not only with traditional instruments but also using "sound effects", e.g. the wind machine. This is indeed very un-operetta-ish and so is Zorika’s entrance aria, beginning Heissa, heissa! Heiss, juchhei!, like a latterday Hungarian Brünnhilde, but continuing as a kind of radio reporter, describing the terrible weather and even imitating the cuckoo! It isn’t exactly an aria and the libretto has the heading "Introduction and Entrance". The part is very high-lying and Johanna Stojkovic manages it admirably. She has a fine, bright voice and and is quite expressive. The duet that follows has some characteristic Lehárian "Schmaltz" and is quite melancholy and well sung. Maybe the highpoint in the whole work is Zorika’s song in the second act (CD2 track 3) which is music worthy of a Hanna Glawari. Johanna Stojkovic sings very well indeed and she is also good in the duet with Jonel in the same act (track 7). The other major soprano role, Ilona, is sung by Dagmar Schellenberger, who is more of a household name. Hers is a more rounded, fuller and deeper voice, which unfortunately sometimes develops a wide vibrato under pressure. She is a dramatic singer, though. Her long solo in act 2 (CD2 track 4), Durch’s Leben da klingt eine Melodei, is another fine waltz-melody out of Lehár’s top-drawer. Schellenberger can also produce a wonderful pianissimo, as at the end of her duet with Józsi (CD2 track 6). Best of all is her last act aria, Hör’ ich Cymbálklänge (CD2 track 13), which is inserted from the second version of the work. This is music – and singing! – that should draw standing ovations in the theatre.

As Józsi, the gypsy fiddler, we hear Zoran Todorovich, born in Belgrade but living in Germany and singing in many of the world’s great opera houses. He was recently praised for his Sandor Barinkay in a recording of Johann Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron. He takes part in BMG’s live recording of Halévy’s La Juive from the Vienna State Opera and has a recital on Arte Nova, where his singing of the romance from The Pearl Fishers challenges even Nicolai Gedda’s. His is "a lyric tenor with dramatic outgrowth" (his own description), quite dark in timbre and with lots of power. He has a lively stage presence and is a convincing actor, important for the role of Józsi. In the first act he has a lovely solo in the long third scene (CD1 track 4) and in the finale of the same act he sings what is one of Lehár’s finest melodies, Glück hat als Gast nie lange Rast (CD1 track 6). Todorovich sings it well with a good ring but is taxed on some of the top notes. He compensates for that, though, in the fiery second act song Weisst ja doch, ich bin Zigeuner (CD2 track 1) where he rips off a gleaming high C in the concluding duet with Zorika. The part was originally offered to Louis Treumann, the first Danilo in The Merry Widow, but he turned it down, saying "Wouldn’t occur to me in a dream – am I Caruso?" Well, Zoran Todorovich may not be a Caruso but he has all the qualities that make a splendid Józsi, and throughout his is expressive singing and acting of the highest order. The other leading tenor, Bernhard Schneider as Jonel, is lightweight and can feel too weak at times, which makes him press his voice beyond his natural limits. However where he keeps within his compass he can express passion with small means, as in the second act duet with Zorika (CD2 track 7).

The comic duo also have small voices. Stefan-Alexander Rankl as Kajetán sings very beautifully indeed. Of the others Andreas Hörl has a fine rounded bass, which can be heard to good effect on CD2 track 3 (after Zorika’s aria) and in the second act finale (CD2 track 8). Interestingly in this scene there is a short quotation from Carmen (The Toreador song) when Ilona says "Gypsy girl, forward, you must dance, sing!"

The chorus plays a more important part in Zigeunerliebe than in any other operetta I know and the NDR-Chor sings splendidly. The orchestra is good and the conductor, Frank Beermann, keeps things moving. The sound is excellent and the booklet, besides printing the sung texts in German and in an English translation by Susan-Marie Praeder, also has a very interesting long essay by Stefan Frey.

In toto this is a very good performance of a work that should be better known. Lehár lovers should rush to the nearest record store and others, who are not directly allergic to operetta, should also lend this recording their ears. They will be in for several pleasing surprises.

Göran Forsling

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