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Emmerich (Imre) KÁLMÁN (1882 - 1953)
Die Zigeunerprimas [The Gypsy Violinist ](1912) [101.23]
Juliska – Edith Lienbacher (soprano)
Sári – Gabriele Rossmanith (soprano)
Gaston – Zoran Todorovich (tenor)
Laczi – Roberto Saccà (tenor)
Graf Estragon - Kay Stiefermann (baritone)
Cadeau/Fekete – Klaus Häger (baritone)
Pali Rácz –Wolfgan Bankl (bass)
Exzellenz Musitari - Martin Likier
Zwei Zigeuner – Ladislav Hallon, Karol Bernath
Narration – Sunnyi Melles
Children’s Chorus of Bavarian State Opera
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra/Claus Peter Flor
Recorded Philharmonie in Gasteig, 25-26 October 2003, Bavarian Radio
CPO 777 058-2 [48.20 + 53.03]

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Kálmán’s first operetta was staged in Budapest in 1908 and reached Vienna the following year. By 1911 he was writing musicals for Vienna and Die Zigeunerprimas was staged at the Theater an der Wien in 1912, his second operetta to be premiered in Vienna, This was three years before Die Csardasfurstin, perhaps his best known work. Der Zigeunerprimas was the first of his stage works to reach the USA and it effectively sealed his international reputation.

The title translates as The Gypsy Violinist or perhaps The Gypsy Virtuoso. The title refers to Pali Rácz, a famous Hungarian gypsy violinist. Rácz was a real life figure, notorious not only for his violin playing but for his 36 children - in the operetta the number is reduced to 16. Kálmán’s Rácz is well past his glory days and takes a Hans Sachs like role in the romantic proceedings of his children.

Though it was Kálmán’s second opera to be written with a German libretto, musically it is one of his most wistfully Hungarian; a wonderful sense of lyric Magyar melancholy hangs over the whole proceedings.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the romantic entanglements of Rácz’s daughter Sári (Gabriele Rossmanith) as she falls in love with a nobleman, Gaston, Count Irini (Zoran Todorovich). There is also by-play between Rácz’s son Laczi (Roberto Sacca) and Juliska (Edith Lienbacher), Rácz’s niece, complicated by the fact that Rácz himself (Wolfgang Bankl) has his eye on her as his 4th wife.

Matters are made more interesting by the musical rivalry between Rácz and his son Laczi, culminating in a public contest which forms the finale to Act 2. Here Rácz displays wonderful ‘gypsy’ virtuoso music (a lovely section for solo violin and cimbalom), but it is Laczi’s playing in the modern manner which wins the day. Part of the work’s charm is the way that, schematic though the plot is, it refuses to embalm its characters in a misty past. Not only are Rácz and his song musical rivals; their home village (the setting for Act 1) is no romantic gypsy village, but a positive factory for creating gypsy musicians.

This performance, which originates with Bayerische Rundfunk, has the great advantage of involving the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Slovak Philharmonic Choir. The title role of Pali Rácz was written for the ageing Alexander Girardi. On the recording Wolfgang Bankl is certainly not ageing (he made his Vienna State Opera debut in 1993), but manages to bring the right sense of world weariness to the role. The two leading ladies, Gabriele Rossmanith and Edith Leinbacher (Sári and Juliska), have lovely lyric soprano voices though occasionally a little too much vibrato crept in for my taste. Tenors Zoran Todorovich and Roberto Sacca are their fine partners. Todorovich’s tenor is a lyric instrument which sounds as if it is growing more dramatic. Occasionally it feels as if he is reining his voice in; but he makes and attractive leading man. Sacca’s instrument is essentially lyric but he can sound a little steely at the top of his range.

All the cast have a good feel for Kálmán’s music and sing his music in a shapely, stylish manner, spinning out his long-arched melodies in a fine manner. So, though I might have voiced concerns about their voices in the previous paragraph, their secure sense of style meant that I could generally relax and enjoy the music. The principals are well supported by the rest of the cast.

One of the delights of this piece is Kálmán’s melodic flair and his rich orchestration; the orchestra includes not only a cimbalom but a piano as well. The Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra relish the opportunities that Kálmán gives them. Conductor Claus Peter Flor has a good feel for the right tempi.

So, in purely musical terms, I have no qualms about recommending this recording. But an operetta consists of more than just the music, there is dialogue as well. Here, the dialogue has been replaced by a narration by Sunnyi Melles; she not only narrates, but speaks the dialogue in the melodramas. I found the narrations rather intrusive and unhelpful but was unable to eliminate them entirely as Melles’ spoken text often overlaps the introductions of the musical numbers; a nice effect, but it means you cannot eliminate her by programming your CD player. At just over 100 minutes, I did wonder whether it would have been worth CPO’s while in removing the narrations and trimming the music to fit a single CD.

The set includes a bonus curiosity at the end, 28 seconds of Emmerich Kálmán speaking about the operetta. There is no libretto but the notes include an extensive plot summary in English. The diction is such that anyone with decent German should be able to follow the solos and the narration.

This remains a worthwhile set to buy. The spoken narration is a small price to pay for Kálmán’s score which mines a vein of romantic melancholy making this operetta such a delight.

Robert Hugill

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