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Albert LORTZING (1801-1851)
Undine - opera in four Acts (1845)
Undine, Monika Krause (soprano)
Ritter Hugo, Josef Protschka (tenor)
Veit, Heinz Kruse (tenor)
Kühleborn, John Janssen (baritone)
Bertalda, Christiane Hampe (soprano)
Hans, Andreas Schmidt (baritone)
Marthe, Ingeborg Most (contralto)
Tobias, Klaus Häger (bass)
Pater Heilmann, Günter Wewel (bass)
Dirk Schortemeier (speaker)
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln/Godfried Ritter
WDR Radio Orchestra, Köln/Kurt Eichhorn
rec. WDR Studios, Cologne, Germany, Nov, Dec 1989, Feb 1990. DDD
CAPRICCIO 51 195 [78:34 + 78:02]
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Albert Lortzing
was born into a German theatrical family and was himself an actor as well as a composer, much influenced by the style of Mozart and Weber. Lortzing in turn influenced both Wagner and Johann Strauss II. Today he is still remembered for his operettas which occasionally appear in the mainstream repertoire. Zar und Zimmermann (1837), Der Wildschütz (1842) and Der Waffenschmied (1845) still play in Germany, but Undine is less well known.

Undine is based on a short fairy tale by Motte-Fouqué. It inhabits a magical world from which the water nymph, Undine comes. The ethereal realm of elemental spirits provides the romantic imagination from which the opera draws its strength. The libretto tells how humans who become involved with the spiritual world will come to grief and tragedy. The interaction between reality and fantasy is at the heart of plots of German romantic opera up to Wagner. The skilful Lortzing usually wrote the lyrics for his operas himself, but for Undine he turned to a separate librettist, echoing Mozart who said that ‘in an opera, the verse absolutely has to be the obedient servant of the music’. Lortzing was more down to earth in his views: ‘Operatic verse! What’s the point of going to great lengths over it? The composer has to throw (in) everything that makes up the poetry ... on to a bonfire, so that the phoenix that is the music can rise from the ashes.’ Fouqué had died two years before the production reached the public and the subservient librettist to Lortzing was E. T. A. Hoffmann.

I find Lortzing’s treatment of delicate imagery rather heavy and this is partly due to the fact that he asked Hoffmann to write a more tragic treatment of the original story. In it, a knight, Hugo, falls in love with a fisherman’s foster-daughter, Undine, and decides to return with her to his city to marry her. This is the action of Act 1. She declares that she does not have a soul and has been sent by the water sprite, Kühleborn, to gain one from human involvement. Much of the opera concerns Undine’s disclosure of her origin to Hugo and interaction with a rival, Bertalda. Undine is later disowned and returns to the water kingdom. At the castle festivities for Hugo’s wedding to Bertalda comes revenge from the water kingdom (who presumably gain entry via the castle well). The clock strikes midnight and the castle comes crashing down. All but a repentant Hugo are killed! Hugo is now allowed to join the sprite’s watery kingdom with Undine for the rest of his life.

The opera contains some glorious music yet on an initial hearing one is not aware of much thematic development. Lortzing attempted to develop his own style of singspiel in the same way that the 19th century British school tended to promote the ballad.

Only one other version is known to me, EMI’s 1967 Berlin recording by Robert Heger. That has been a benchmark for this work up to now. Surprisingly, both recordings have merits, but Heger’s pacing is sometimes pedantic in comparison and his balance between sections of the orchestra is not always good. This puts the Capriccio recording in a positive and energetic light: the sound is for example sharper with the violins more crisply defined. Of the singers, both recordings have strong casts, all in excellent voice and with clear diction. However, at times I consider the flow of arched phrases from Monika Krause rather choppy and staccato when compared with the breezy flow Anneliese Rothenberger, forty years earlier. This is most evident in tr.4 (CD1) of both sets. The chorus are more fiery in the Capriccio recording and are helped by the faster pace.

The booklet with very brief notes is written in German, English and French.

Raymond Walker



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