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Franz LEHÁR (1870 - 1948) Das Fürstenkind (1909)
Chen Reiss (soprano) - Photini, Prinzessin von Parnes/Nydia; Mary Mills (soprano) - Mary-Ann, Tochter von Gwendolyne und Thomas Barley; Matthias Klink (tenor) - Hadschi Stavros, Fürst von Parnes und Photinis Vater; Ralf Simon (tenor) - Bill Harris, Kommandantn eines amerikanischen Stationsschiffes; Theresa Holzhauser (mezzo) - Gwendolyne, Thomas Barleys Frau; Jörg Schörner (tenor) - Thomas Barner, Chef des Bankhauses Stone & Co.; Marko Cilic (tenor) - Naukleros Perikles, Polizeihauptmann/Phalatis, von der Bande des Hadschi Stavros; Mauro Peter (tenor) - Koltzida/Tamburis/Spiro von der Bande des Hadschi Stavros; Christian Eberl (baritone) - Christodulos, ein alter Pallikar in Photinis Diensten; Henry Raudales (violin)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer
rec. live, München, Prinzregententheater, 28 November 2010
Synopsis and comprehensive notes CPO 777 680-2 54:09 + 69:13]
After the premiere of Die lustige Witwe in 1905, Lehár worked on a libretto, Der Mann mit drei Frauen that eventually turned out to be a flop. He had in fact begun work on this project long before Die Witwe but was never satisfied with the libretto. The success of Die Witwe postponed the premiere of the new work by more than two years and when they did hear it the very same audience who had taken Die Witwe to their heart, was disappointed. The same goes for the press: “Too bad that the composer has wasted his great talent on such a weakling libretto!”
Lehár saw the point and in the future he chose discriminatingly, saying: “I can decide in favour of a libretto only when I fall in love with the heroine, experience the hero’s adventures as if they were my own, and all the tragic complications touch me as if they concerned me personally.”
When he settled on his next task he wrote to his librettist Victor Léon, who had previously written the book for Die lustige Witwe: “I have about a thousand libretti available to me. I choose the most appealing libretto, to be specific, the one corresponding best to my character.” Das Fürstenkind was based on a novella by the French author Edmond d’About, Le roi des montagnes, published in 1856. D’About had spent many years in Greece and this operetta is set there with a “king of the mountains” at the centre of the action. The story involves both financial policies and a love story. There are as usual complications aplenty but Lehár was very satisfied with the text. “You have done a dazzling job!” he wrote to Léon, and set to work. In many ways the resulting operetta points forward to his later works and even further than that, since he didn’t bother about the conventional buffo couple with jolly dance episodes. On the contrary he worked on a broader scale with few isolated arias and duets; instead expanding them into long through-composed scenes and employing leifmotifs. The first act finale is the most flagrant example with close to 23 minutes continuous musical flow.
This operetta may have come as a surprise to the Viennese audience at the premiere in 1909 but it still played more than two hundred times. It was later eclipsed by both Zigeunerliebe and Der Graf von Luxemburg - this to Lehár’s great disappointment. He regarded Das Fürstenkind as his best creation and only changed his mind in the 1920s when his Tauber-operettas conquered the world.
I have to admit that my first reaction to the music was rather mixed. Lehár gradually became a very sophisticated orchestrator and in this work his skills produced a sound that almost falls into in the chamber music field. There is no overture, instead we hear distant music from a piano trio, presumably behind the curtain. When the curtain rises there is spoken dialogue over the music. In fact throughout the work there is quite a lot of dialogue, and I wish there had been room for the libretto in the booklet. CPO have been rather inconsistent in these matters - and also concerning decisions on inclusion or exclusion of dialogue. For this set we get to listen to rather too much of it.
I suppose Lehár was truly inspired when he set to work, but I can’t quite hear that. It all sounds rather sleepwalker-like during the Vorspiel. There’s a Vorspiel and two acts but it’s the twelve-minute-long first act finale that saves it. Much the same redemptive power applies to the entr’acte, which is a Robber march (CD 1 tr. 9), full of pep and a reminiscence of the composer’s background as a military musician.
In the first act Mary-Ann makes her entrance (CD 1 tr. 12) and here, at last we are confronted with a waltz-melody that really catches. There are echoes of Die lustige Witwe here and there in the rest of the act. The extended finale II also has a waltz in the beloved tradition. The Intermezzo entitled Resignation that ushers in act II, is skilfully written and shows his mastery. The short second act also boasts a waltz, a quintet where the tenor opens to sparse piano accompaniment, and then it just grows. Here old Lehár - not that old actually - presents his credentials. The work ends as it began: with a melodrama.
Ulf Schirmer has conducted several earlier issues in CPO’s Lehár series. He is well versed in the idiom and has reliable choral and orchestral forces at his disposal. I believe Lehár would have been satisfied with these aspects of this recording. Whether it is a world premiere on disc I am not quite sure - it doesn’t say anywhere on the cover or in the booklet. Probably the composer would have felt a bit short-changed concerning some of the soloists. Stavros, the king of the mountains, was sung at the premiere by Louis Treumann, the original Danilo in Die lustige Witwe. Matthias Klink, who takes the role here, may not have quite that charisma. He sings and acts well enough but becomes rather strident in the upper reaches. Ralf Simon as the American commandant sports an acceptable tenor, sings lyrically and is nuanced but no more than that. The leading ladies are in a different league. The voice of Chen Reiss should be well known to filmgoers, since she sang on the soundtrack for Perfume. She also has a wide-ranging career in opera houses around the world. I was very impressed some years ago by her recital CD Liaisons (review). Her beauty of tone and warm personality also come through here. It is a pity that she doesn’t have more to sing. No, the lion’s part in this operetta is allotted to Mary Mills and she is also a truly accomplished singer. She has a bigger, more vibrant voice than Ms Reiss coupled with which she has the style to a tee. She makes the most of her numbers, most of all in her long entrance aria (CD 1 tr. 12).
I wouldn’t rank Das Fürstenkind among the best Lehár operettas but even those lesser pieces are well worth a listen. Lehár collectors will need no advocacy from me. They can safely buy this well-engineered live recording. Also those only mildly sympathetic to Lehár will find things to enjoy, not least a Lehár on the move towards opera, with long through-composed scenes. We can find that in some of his other works as well, but Das Fürstenkind is surely his most ambitious attempt in that direction. If nothing else here attracts the Lehár-recalcitrant, the two sopranos will offer deep satisfaction.