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Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Fatinitza - operetta in three acts (1876) [135:32]
Stephanie Hautzeel (mezzo) – Wladimir Samiloff; Stephen Scheschareg (baritone) – General Timosey Kantschukoff; Zora Antonic (soprano) – Fürstin Lydia Uschajoff; Christian Bauer (tenor) – Julian von Goltz; Berhard Adler (bass-baritone) – Izzet Pascha; Gerhard Balluch (speaker) – Hassan Bey
Chorus of the Bad Ischl Lehár Festival
Franz Lehár Orchestra/Vinzenz Praxmarer
rec. Festspielsaal, Bad Ischl, 21-24 August 2006. DDD
CPO 777 202-2 [64:37 + 70:55]

Suppé is a composer whose music was once inescapable. The Overture to the play “Poet and Peasant” could be heard in recordings from Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic to Eddie Peabody on the solo banjo - well worth a reissue - but little was available to show what happened in the operettas that followed his other overtures. At last this is changing, and the present recording is a major step along the way towards his restoration in what surely must be a high place in the gallery of operetta composers.
Suppé started with incidental music and short works, including “Light Cavalry” and “Die schöne Galathee”. “Fatinitza” was composed in 1876, only two years after “Die Fledermaus” and using the same team of librettists – Friedrich Zell and Richard Geneé. It was a great success for the rest of the nineteenth century but had virtually disappeared in its original form until the revival which forms the basis of this recording. Performances of a revised version in 1956 had probably been counter-productive as they omitted one of its most surprising and effective features – the casting of the leading male rôle – a Lieutenant in the Russian Army - as a mezzo soprano. As for much of the time he (“she”) is disguised as a woman its recasting as a tenor must have had important and harmful musical and dramatic consequences.
Fatinitza” is set in the Crimean War. That had finished only some twenty years earlier having been in many ways one of the first to show the full horrors of modern warfare. No hint of that appears here, although I shudder to think what some producers might make of it. The plot basically concerns the leading character’s efforts to marry the niece of an elderly Russian General despite her abduction by a Turkish Pasha. The Second Act is set in the harem of the Pasha’s Palace, an echo of Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” which is emphasized by the leading character’s unconsummated intention of arranging a performance of that opera. The recording unfortunately lacks a text or translation and for a non-German speaker it is sometimes hard from the brief synopsis to be sure where exactly in the plot one is at times. This does inevitably reduce enjoyment and is a blot on an otherwise excellent presentation, with photos (albeit not enough) from the stage production and lengthy biographies of the performers. Nonetheless the gist of the action is clear, and the performance is so idiomatic that it would be foolish to regard this lack as a fatal flaw to total enjoyment. That was indeed my reaction every time I listened to this recording. Even the dialogue – at times over 4 minutes at a time – is performed with such panache that I almost felt that, despite not speaking German, I understood what was being said. It certainly never seemed merely a penance to be got through before the next musical number as is sometimes the case even in musically excellent recordings. The dialogue is recorded at a lower level than the music but not as low as it would be naturally. This makes listening a great deal more comfortable.
The recording is based on a production at the Bad Ischl Festival in 2006, so that by the time of the recording all the artists were well inside their rôles. There are no weak links in the cast, but I found myself looking forward especially to each appearance of Stephanie Houtzel, who sings with charm and a natural understanding of the idiom. Everyone relishes the words – making it especially regrettable that they are not fully understandable by a non-German speaker, apart from a quotation in English from “Some like it hot”, whose context can only be guessed at and which is presumably part of a revision of the dialogue by Leonard and Sabine Pinsloo. The orchestra and chorus also deserve praise for the verve and understanding that they bring to the piece. Vinzenz Praxmarer, the conductor, must have been more than satisfied with the excellent results he obtained from them.
Overall, and even taking into account the lack of a libretto, I must recommend this very strongly not only to any devotee of Viennese operetta but also to any lover of the music of Offenbach and Sullivan. “Fatinitza” may not be quite up to the standard of the best of Johann Strauss, Offenbach or Sullivan but it is certainly not as far behind as its neglect might suggest.
John Sheppard


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