Collections of overtures by Suppé are common – and very welcome. Most include that to “Pique Dame”. It is surely one of the best, from its quiet, intriguing, start to its infectious galop at the end, not forgetting the comically prim section with two flutes in thirds in the middle. Here, not before time, is a chance to find out what happens in the rest. Or at least, to hear the rest of the music, as no libretto is included and the synopsis given in the notes is far from clear. Whilst I do not miss the dialogue I am sure that my enjoyment would have been greatly increased by something more than brief and poorly written indications as to what happens in each number. As it is, the notes do explain that “Pique Dame” is a revision of an earlier operetta, “Die Kartenschlägerin”, which was also derived at several removes from Pushkin’s story, “The Queen of Spades”. Neither seems to have much in common with Tchaikovsky’s opera of that name. Essentially the operetta on this disc concerns a young composer, Emil, in love with Hedwig. Her guardian, Fabian Muker, is also in love with her. The plot revolves around the actions of Judith, a fortune-teller wrongly thought to be Emil’s mother, in exposing Muker and ensuring the marriage of Emil and Hedwig. At the end Muker is revealed as Emil’s uncle. Perhaps this is all clearer with a full libretto but given the luke-warm reception the work had at its first performance I would doubt it.
Operas and operettas let down by mediocre librettos are not uncommon, but they can be worth reviving if the music is of sufficient quality. That is the case here, although I have to say that in compiling the overture Suppé did make use of most of the better parts of the nine vocal sections that follow it. The opening number is a solo for Emil who is composing in his garret. Part is accompanied by the piano – a delightful and very effective idea – and indeed Suppé’s imagination and skill in orchestration is one of the main pleasures of the work as a whole. It is followed by a duet for Emil and Judith. The booklet notes rightly describe this as reminding the listener of “Il Trovatore” and of items from other Verdi operas. This is certainly true, although it has to be admitted that as a parody it is not as amusing as, say, the duet for Frederic and Ruth in “The Pirates of Penzance”. It is nonetheless entertaining, as is the work as a whole.
The performance starts well with a splendid account of the overture – at least as good as any of the many recordings of it I have already in collections of operatic orchestral items. Thereafter the orchestra, and the chorus in the few moments in which they appear, continue to be the main strength of the disc. The soloists are all clearly no strangers to the idiom but none have voices of outstanding beauty and indeed there are a few uncomfortable moments from the men. Nonetheless these are certainly not enough to put off anyone wanting to explore this fascinating example of the birth of Viennese operetta. There are no rival recordings as far as I am aware and its comparative brevity and sheer tunefulness are obvious attractions. It is surely an essential purchase for the devotee of Viennese operetta. It would also have much to offer those whose taste is more usually for Offenbach or Sullivan.