In a brief outline of the history of German opera one can get the impression that nothing of importance happened between Weber and Wagner. The truth is that opera blossomed during those years even though on a more modest scale. Heinrich Marschner, for instance, whose Der Vampyr
I reviewed not long ago, was frequently played throughout the century. In a more idyllic Biedermeier atmosphere composers like Flotow (Martha
), Nicolai (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
) and Lortzing also chalked up successes. Even today their operas are played, at least in German-speaking countries. Lortzing was probably the most skilled of them. His handling of the orchestra was excellent; several of his overtures bear witness about that, and he created characters that often are more than one-dimensional. He also wrote his own librettos and was a good singer – all this contributing to the quality of his operas. Zar und Zimmermann
(about Tsar Peter I) is arguably his masterpiece but Der Wildschütz
is not far behind and Der Waffenschmied
and even the fairy-tale Undine
are attractive works.
was outlined in the spring of 1848, the revolution year, and completed (bar the overture) in the autumn. It was never performed during Lortzing’s lifetime. He died in 1851 and it was not until March 1899 that it was first staged and then in a compromised version. The original, as Lortzing had intended it, was first played in 1998 at Gelsenkirchen, directed by Peter Konwitschny.
The story is briefly as follows:-
When the curtain rises we are in a factory – the first opera set in that milieu. The workers are on strike and demand higher wages and other changes. Richard, a foreman, who is engaged to Regina, the owner of the factory, manages to calm down the workers through telling them how many good things Simon, the owner, has done for them. Another foreman, Stephan, who also is in love with Regina, has joined a group of revolutionaries who suddenly occupy the factory. There is a fight between the two groups, the factory is set on fire and Stephan abducts Regina and disappears. After a series of complications they find an ammunition dump where they hide. Richard and his friends approach to liberate Regina but Stephan says he is going to blow up the ammunition dump. Before he manages to do so Regina shoots him. The workers sing patriotic songs about a united and democratic Germany.
Musically the opera has a great deal to offer and those who already know their Lortzing can safely add this recording to their collections. The overture, admittedly not by Lortzing – only fragments of his sketches have been retained and it was completed by Gustav Härtel in 1877 – is, even so, a good work with a beautiful cello solo. It is skilfully orchestrated but of the revolutionary content in the opera that follows there is little. It’s rather idyllic – as are so many of Lortzing’s other operas – but it is spirited. The opening chorus with protesting workers is however darker and more militant. The chorus has a lot to do in this opera and there is undoubted power in quite a lot of what they have to sing.
There are few arias. These include Stephan, the bad boy, having an extended scene in the first act (CD 1 tr. 6) and Barbara singing a little beautiful song at the opening of act II (CD 2 tr. 1). There are a lot of ensembles and three very long through-composed finales. In the first act there is also a quintet (CD 1 tr. 4), an equivalent to the celebrated billiard quintet in Der Wildschütz
and almost comparable to its predecessor. One of the highlights is the emotion-filled scene between Stephan and Regina in act II, where he confesses that when he first saw her he felt that she was predestined for him. For this confession Lortzing has created a lovely melody that Regina later repeats. This is a golden moment with Lortzing at his most melodically inspired.
The singing is a bit variable but taken as a whole is fairly good. Johanna Stojkovic, a singer I have met in a couple of earlier recordings, is splendid and she has some wonderful things to sing in all three acts. Detlef Roth as Stephan is strong and expressive though his voice shows signs of wear. He recorded a very good Schubert CD in the Naxos complete Schubert Edition
, some ten years ago. Now his voice is heavier and drier but this forbidding character shouldn’t be too attractive. Albert Pesendorfer, as the factory owner and Regina’s father, has good black deep notes but sounds rather young. The tenors are no more than acceptable but Jean Broekhuizen’s Barbara is very good.
CPO provide extensive notes and libretto with English translation – a luxury today. It should be pointed out that there is a certain amount of spoken dialogue and that the text is not printed. Listeners with fairly fluent German should have no problems following it, since it is delivered with uncommon clarity and diction.
Ulf Schirmer has made a speciality in digging out operatic rarities and he has excellent rapport with the Munich Radio Orchestra. Good singing too from the Prague Philharmonic Choir.
I thought this must be a world premiere recording but found to my surprise a recording from the Berlin Radio, made in 1951 (Archipel Walhall) but the present recording is no doubt as close to Lortzing as can be achieved.
Not the unknown masterpiece we always hope for but pleasant enough.