We tend to think of Johann Strauss the Younger as a sort of eighteenth century equivalent of Lennon and McCartney or Andrew Lloyd Webber, churning out one massively popular piece after another. Many of his pieces were massively popular, and remain so to this day when a player like André Rieu can make a full career out of performing them. We also tend to overlook the fact that Strauss was also massively prolific, the pieces that keep his reputation alive being merely the tip of an iceberg. There were many other occasional pieces - and more substantial ones too - that were almost totally eclipsed almost as soon as they were produced. Such would have been the fate of his operetta Eine Nacht in Venedig which had only limited success after its initial run of stagings, if it had not been for the intervention of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who took the score and thoroughly reworked it for a 1923 revival which turned what had become a neglected work into a massive hit.
In order to achieve this success, Korngold made substantial alterations and re-arrangements. These transferred the principal interest of the plot from the comic role of Caramello to the philandering Duke, adding to the latter part not only an aria taken from the soprano but also another taken from a different Strauss operetta altogether. The set under consideration here makes considerable further alterations and additions, and in order to find the way through the tangle of various sources I am considerably indebted to Kurt Gänzl’s superlatively detailed account of the matter in his valuable Musical Theatre on Record. Gänzl observes that the work has been “subsequently rearranged and rewritten by so many ‘improving’ hands that to attempt now to say what is the ‘real’ Eine Nacht in Venedig is a bit hopeless.” The edition by conductor Franz Allers employed here has, he observes, been “stuffed full of extraneous numbers for the once tiny role of Enrico and the practically non-existent one of the senator’s wife.” Many of these were drawn from Casanova, another pastiche of a Strauss operetta drawn in turn from other miscellaneous sources. He concedes that “the result of all this interpolating is a recording of a sort of Eine Nacht in Venedig/Casanova hybrid which is, frankly, a lot more fun than the other versions.” I should add that I have a version of the vocal score, published by Weinberger in 1954 in yet another revised edition, goes even further renaming many of the principal characters.
In recent years there have been a number of recordings which have made an attempt more or less conscientiously to get back to the score as Strauss originally wrote it. Foremost among these have been an edition by Hans-Ulrich Barth which however continued to make additions to the score culled from Fürstin Ninetta and Der lustige Krieg, and a more recent Naxos recording advertised as the “Viennese original version of 1883” but which made a number of cuts in its turn and omitted all the spoken dialogue. The two principal recordings which have survived in the catalogue both come from the EMI stable - the one here conducted by Franz Allers, and an older mono recording conducted by Otto Ackermann with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the cast. Her presence has always ensured that the performance has maintained its place in the listings but, as Gänzl points out, a number of the melodies there are transferred to other singers. Nicolai Gedda as the Duke appropriates the aria Komm in der Gondel from Caramello, in turn losing the Lagunen-Walzer to the baritone Kunz (who has to transpose the number down). The aria Was mir der Zufall gab, a soprano number which Korngold had assigned to the tenor, was given back to Schwarzkopf to make up for the fact that she in turn had lost her aria in Act Three. Here Streich loses it back to Gedda, which was not Strauss’s original idea. In this new edition by Allers, both Prey and Rothenberger get the lion’s share of the numbers imported from Casanova as well as appropriating other sections of the score. Again one is indebted to Gänzl for steering one through all this, as the booklet notes with this issue say very little about the matter. The issue is in fact even more complicated than I have outlined here, but this is, I hope, a fairly accurate summary of the situation. The interpolations on these discs total some quarter of an hour of music - that is, about a sixth of the whole - and are identified in the booklet.
After all of which, let us get down to the matter of the performance of the score as it is presented here. The earlier mono recording under Ackermann, with pruned dialogue, was good for its day, but twelve years later this stereo version has understandably a much more resonant sound especially in the manner in which the sparkling orchestration is captured. Nor does Allers with his Bavarian forces yield any points in interpretation to Ackermann’s Philharmonia. Nicolai Gedda remains a constant in both sets, and his performance has not changed much over the years although he has rather different music to sing. In the other tenor role of Caramello - taking over some of Gedda’s material from the earlier set - Cesare Curzi is unfortunately a decidedly weak link, with a voice a couple of degrees smaller than those around him. In his duet with Annina he is comprehensively out-sung by Rita Streich, and although he makes a good fist of his Komm in die Gondel one suspects the assistance of the microphones. He totally lacks the easy grace of Gedda.
Hermann Prey and Anneliese Rothenberger are, as one would expect, superb in their delivery of the interpolated material. One is grateful to hear their music so well done. Rita Streich also sounds good, more substantial in tone than in many of her recordings. Although she is no Schwarzkopf she sings with plenty of point and makes the music delectable. Some of the smaller roles are more adequately taken than others, but what needs to be emphasised is that this issue gives us all the music to be found on the earlier Ackermann set - and unlike that set, at the correct pitch - as well as quite a bit of extra material. It is therefore highly desirable in its own right, and for those who dislike Schwarzkopf’s deliberate interpretative style - I find it charming in this music - this recording will be preferable.
Where this reissue, like so many from the Electrola stable, does fall down is in the matter of presentation. The booklet notes inform us that in the preparation of the edition of score employed here “the production team also wanted to make the story clearer” - but we are given no text, and not even a synopsis of the action as now adapted. Since the storyline has been altered, this means that even synopses available online are of dubious assistance. At one time EMI did at least provide online texts of their opera reissues, but now we don’t even get that. Since we are given a newly written booklet note for this reissue, the omission is even more inexplicable. This is quite simply a very deficient way to present what is an enjoyable - but ultimately incomprehensible - recording. Unless you are a fluent German speaker, and can follow the extensive spoken dialogue, you will have no idea at all about what is going on.
Paul Corfield Godfrey