Franz LEHÁR (1870 - 1948)
Der Zarewitsch - Operetta in Three Acts (1927)
Alexandra Reinprecht - Sonja (soprano); Christina Landshamer - Mascha (soprano); Matthias Klink - Zarewitsch (tenor); Andreas Winkler - Iwan (tenor); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer
rec. Prinzregententheater, München, Germany. 8 March 2009
CPO 777 523-2 [62:53 + 59:48]
Of all the independent recording companies dedicated to the discovery of rare and unfamiliar repertoire I am not sure any has a better record than CPO for consistently producing discs of excellent quality containing music from little known composers of considerable artistic and technical merit. They seem to have managed to create a niche where their catalogue is built almost exclusively on rare repertoire. Even such stalwarts of the undiscovered such as Chandos and BIS have core repertoire in their catalogues. Just occasionally CPO tiptoe towards the more familiar. As has been the case with their hugely valuable series of discs devoted to complete performances of the operettas of Franz Lehár. The key word there is complete - particularly when it concerns the better known works. When you consider that most highlights of the work in question here - Der Zarewitsch - usually fit comfortably on a single disc and you realise that the two discs here run to over two hours, even allowing for the presence of some extended dialogue, there is quite a lot of unfamiliar music here. There is also the question of which edition is used. I am not enough of an expert to know the intricacies involved and I have to say the liner-note leaves me more confused than enlightened. As far as I can understand it there seems to be the original 1927 Berlin edition as premiered by Tauber. Then Lehár, an inveterate reviser, returned to the score ten years later to create a 1937 version. The liner explains that various songs were moved, edited or replaced between editions. But it seems that this performance includes elements of both editions. Nowhere in the notes is it made clear what version this performance is based upon. Frankly, this is not an issue that overly concerns me but I suspect real aficionados would demand some explanation of the choices made.
In the series to date there have been several real highlights - restoring works to the catalogue that for too long have languished in the shadow of Die Lustige Witwe or Das Land des Lächelns. My personal favourites have been the early attempt at dramatic opera Tatjana and the still little known Sterngucker. The latter might lack the sumptuous glories of the bigger better known works but its charms are considerable. The pleasure in the unknown works has been the discovery of new glorious tunes from the inexhaustible pen of Lehár as opposed to the pleasure in revisiting well-known works where familiar excerpts are returned to their original dramatic context. I suppose the key to the success of the latter is just how effective the dramatic contexts turn out to be. This version of Der Zarewitsch is entrusted to the same instrumental team - Ulf Schirmer conducting the alert Munich Radio Orchestra - that CPO used for Das Land des Lächelns and as with that recording this was made at live performances. Or in fact, if we are to believe the information on the sleeve, a single performance. CPO follow their previous practice of supplying a detailed synopsis but no libretto. Given the production values exhibited elsewhere I think this is a considerable shame. As a non-fluent German speaker there are considerable tracts of the recording where I do not know what is going on. This is all the more curious given that the rest of the liner is a model of interesting insight with several extended and very informative essays on various aspects of the work. CPO do have a knack of using translations into English that add verbosity at the expense of vernacular but the basic content is very good indeed. One slightly unfortunate aspect of this is it underlines the significance of Richard Tauber in the conception and performance of this work which in turns draws one to the inevitable conclusion that Matthias Klink who sings the Zarewitsch/Tauber role is no Tauber. Although not originally offered the role, this was the first great triumph of the Lehár/Tauber collaboration. Although Tauber had had great success with Paganini the previous year it was this operetta where for the first time Lehár wrote a part specifically with Tauber’s voice in mind and actually deferring to him over certain elements of the music. Without this partnership it is hard not to reach the conclusion that both their careers would have been considerably foreshortened. It took the extraordinary stage charisma of a Tauber to make audiences accept the essential absurdities of operetta in the cynical modern 1920s. Conversely, it needed a Lehár to produce the melodic vehicles that suited Tauber’s voice and personality at that point in his career. This might be a live performance - with an audience as silent as the tomb - but one of the central pillars of a Tauber performance - the varied reprise is resolutely absent. I think it could be argued with some validity that this expected, indeed demanded, reprise was built into the format of the work and without them can it really be termed complete.
The performance starts very well. The playing of the Munich Radio Orchestra is neat, alert and nicely balanced in what feels like a realistic theatre acoustic. The scale of the orchestra sounds perfect as well - not overblown but at the same time not scrawny or too thin. The ‘novelty’ instruments like the mandolins - are well balanced. A big plus is the presence of the Bayerischen Rundfunks Choir who add real quality and weight to proceedings. Theirs is the first singing heard and it bodes extremely well - the sound and balance and controlled power is exactly right. So the absence of the chorus in the work except as book-ending for the Acts is a shame. As a not strictly like-for-like comparison I used the extended highlights in English recorded for Telarc by Richard Bonynge with the English Chamber Orchestra and various soloists. His chorus is a group of pick-up session singers called London Voices and good though they are they are not a fraction as idiomatic as their Bavarian counterparts. Likewise the Telarc recording sacrifices atmosphere for detail and overall I find this disc and indeed the other Lehár recordings by this label to be nothing like as satisfying as the series of Gilbert & Sullivan recorded at much the same time.
For all of the scale and opulence of this work the key to its success is the performance quality of the two central characters of The Zarewitsch and his forbidden love, Sonja. Their music either separately or mainly in duet comprises the huge bulk of the score and accounts for even more of the work’s emotional impact. The two singers here certainly look and sound the part as young lovers. Yes, pretty much all of the dialogue is delivered in that slightly stilted way that singers ‘speaking from the diaphragm’ seem unable to avoid and that adds an extra layer of mannerism to a libretto not wallowing in naturalism to start off with. That being said - I have heard a lot worse. Ultimately though, and this was true when Tauber sang, nobody really cares a jot about dramatic veracity and subtle character nuance once the tenor starts to sing. Which is where the problems start for this recording. Winkler has a reasonable voice and he sings well enough. But to my ear it lacks any defining personality. My knowledge of Lehár really started by listening to compilations of Fritz Wunderlich recordings. OK, so there was a man with a voice and a musical intelligence that could make the singing of a shopping list sound passionate but next to him Winkler sounds pale in every regard. Likewise soprano Alexandra Reinpracht as Sonja lacks the bright-eyed pertness that a Lucia Popp would inject into the role. I see there is/was a recording with this same orchestra from the early 1980s featuring Popp with the sometimes stiff René Kollo but I am certain her performance alone will pack the emotional punch lacking here. As a one-off evening in the theatre this performance is perfectly acceptable; as a library edition for regular revisiting it shows up Lehár’s limitations rather than his strengths. In what might seem a rather bizarre and random comparison - the previous disc I reviewed for this site was of Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique which by chance dates from the exact same time as this operetta. In that context the resolute backward-looking rejection of anything even the littlest bit modern - be it plot, music or even emotion - in Der Zarewitsch does appear increasingly anachronistic.
After the all too brief choral opening (no overture) we are straight into the first extended dialogue - about half of which is underscored. The first duet proper is assigned to the secondary leads of Mascha and Iwan. Again all is perfectly pleasant without turning one’s head in the way the best singers can. The orchestra acquit themselves well; again the balance is ideal and Schirmer allows the music to lilt with an easy smiling elegance. About half of the track’s six minutes consists of the duet and then the dialogue resumes. Best not to dwell on the plot - the central tenets of it are as potentially annoying as would be quite such a retentive character as the Zarewitsch were one to meet him in real life. Enough to say that decades of repression are overthrown within seconds of the uptight heir to the throne meeting wild-child Sonja. The balance of Act I revolves around songs expressing individual angst. The first big set-piece is the Zarewitsch’s marvellous Wolgalied. This is not the Tauber-lied of this work as such - but it is the first big sing for the tenor. Unfortunately it shows up Klink’s weaknesses, both technically and musically. The voice sounds thin and positively fragile - the high head-notes sounding under-supported. Much worse though is the utter lack of emotional fire - he sleepwalks through the number and even Schirmer, who elsewhere injects some real vim into proceedings, is unable to generate any kind of passion; this really is a big let-down. Even Jerry Hadley on Telarc, who is not my favourite singer in this repertoire, connects with the text. Klink’s tiptoeing through it all but destroys the song’s impact. Hearing the extended Act I Finale is one of the benefits of having the work recorded complete although again the lack of any emotional heft and Klink’s fatiguingly tight voice dulls the interest. It’s an old adage but one that is very true; the slighter and more improbable the plot the more intensely the characters have to engage with it. Charisma in performance helps, perhaps the physical presence of these performers on stage adds an element their vocal performances alone cannot substitute. There seems to be little chemistry between the leads: where is the ardour, the sinuous lyrical inter-twining of the musical lines implying so much more than just notes? This is all very matter of fact - a kind of ‘Speed-dating the Operetta’. For some time Lehár had been trying to give his works greater emotional weight and this is evidenced by the gentle reflective close to the Act. Again this is dependent on the singer being able to hold the stage. In this performance the tension simply wilts and dissipates providing further proof that in the symbiotic relationship between Lehár and Tauber each needed the other.
The opening of Act II provides a bit of local colour and energy - here the strength of the ensemble performance shines through. In direct comparison with the Wunderlich highlights accompanied - if memory serves correctly - by the Graunke Symphony Orchestra under Carl Michalski, this earlier version, for all the roughness of the recording, has even more attack and vigour. However, the chorus is as crisp and idiomatic as they were before and the orchestra enjoy the national-dances element of the writing. Where Klink lacked tenderness in Act I he now lacks authority in the presence of his fellow officers in Act II - it is still all terribly wan. More extended dialogue links the opening of the act into the first main duet - Hab nur dich allein - one of Lehár’s most sensuously lilting waltz songs. There are lovely little touches in the orchestration and musically this is a real highlight. As with the rest of this performance, I cannot say this is bad, but it refuses to sweep the listener off their feet as it undoubtedly can. Not that the blame for this rests with the composer whose ability to write melody after melody is proved with the very next number - the solo Napolitana for the Zarewitsch character. It’s another memorable and beautiful song and I would rather dwell on the quality of the piece rather than the poorness of its execution. After some more dialogue the second CD opens with Sonja’s walzerlied Das Leben ruft. Alexandra Reinprecht finds considerably more light and shade than her stage lover. Personally I find her voice a fraction too heavy for the role but at least she sings with some genuine style. As before, more than half of the track consists of dialogue. Quite why CPO chose not to separate out the dialogue I cannot imagine, it would be technically simple and offer the listener a ‘music only’ option. For the next duet - Liebe mich, küsse mich - Reinprecht does lighten her sound initially and this benefits the song greatly, giving it room to expand as it develops. However, Klink’s technical demons seriously limit the emotional impact of the climax. CPO again choose to band the seventeen minute finale of the Act as a single track. As readers might imagine, by now the traits apparent earlier reappear - the orchestra play the Russian-flavoured dance-music with real flair and character, and the choral entry cranks the excitement up perceptibly. Again, completists will enjoy all the underscoring here and on into Act III - praise at this point for some lovely violin solos here and throughout the work played with taste and skill by Henry Raudales.
Ultimately, it is the big set-pieces that drill into the memory and in the final Act Lehár proves his remarkable melodic gift with two more fantastic tunes. Unfortunately, tailored as they were to Tauber’s strengths they again reveal Klink’s weaknesses. The final floated high C of Kosende Wellen [4:00 into track 6 CD 2] lacking the earlier singer’s trademark freedom and legato grace. One last oddity with this performance: the speaking part of the Grand Duke is taken by an actor with a speaking voice that sounds younger than the other characters. In true operetta fashion the transition from everlasting love to resigned separation takes barely a minute or so of calmly reasoned dialogue leaving the character of Sonja alone to ponder her loss with a final curtain of poignant regret. This is performed reasonably well here without having that needful last ounce of noble anguish. Usually I would prefer a complete performance of any dramatic work for the simple reason that bridging and linking passages allow the highlights to register in their proper context as well as the fact that often lesser gems are lost in the cutting down. Yes there are passages of music here well worth hearing. However, the meat of this work resides in the already famous songs and for repeated listening the conventions of operetta - particularly ones written well into the third decade of the 20th Century - do become increasingly absurd. I would direct listeners to any of the several ‘historical’ highlights recordings of this work. There you will hear singers immersed in the genre perform with flair, skill and best of all passion. The good things on this recording are overshadowed by central vocal performances of too little personality or musical appeal to merit a recommendation.
Instructive but flawed