During the 1960s and 1970s EMI in Germany produced a whole raft of complete studio recordings of light operas and operettas - and not such light ones, too. The casts were drawn from a roster of singers working in German opera houses and good orchestras - usually the Munich Radio Orchestra. The conductors were sympathetic with the idiom of the works they were presenting. Some of these recordings did not make it into the catalogues outside Germany at the time, but most did, and when they emerged they were extremely well presented. The boxes contained substantial notes on the works themselves, along with complete texts and translations – which were extremely necessary in the case of works which were lay well outside the mainstream repertory. However many of these LP boxes did not maintain a presence in the catalogues for very long, and became something in the nature of collectors’ items.
Since the advent of CD the supply of original recordings from these sources tended to dry up, but over the years the originals have frequently been re-mastered and reissued; and since the original recordings were always very decently made - and often more than that - their reappearance has been welcome. Sadly the standards of the original presentations have slipped, with the translations being the first to be jettisoned. Now – in the most recent issues which have been emerging over the last couple of years – the original texts have also been omitted. This reissue of Lehár’s ‘singspiel’ Friederike comes as part of a rather oddly named ‘Cologne Collection’ which also includes such rarities as Lortzing’s Zar and Zimmermann and Undine, Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler and (on a more serious level) Humperdinck’s Königskinder. The notes now provided are niggardly in the extreme; here we have a mere two pages which describe the genesis of the work but give the non-German listener no synopsis of the plot whatsoever to assist comprehension. It is regrettable indeed that Warner, who have taken over the reissue of these EMI recordings, are continuing the policy of their predecessors in presenting these discs to potential purchasers in a manner that would seem to be designed to discourage any non-German customer from making the effort to get to know these works. I know that Warner and EMI are not the only offenders in this regard, but they really should know better.
Having got that off my chest, let us turn to the set under consideration. Lehár described Friederike as a ‘singspiel’ and not an ‘operetta’, a distinction which has real meaning in this case. This is not the light-hearted romp that one would expect from an operetta pure and simple. It is quite a serious work, with only the presence of spoken dialogue to distinguish it from a full-scale opera – the same terminology is used, for example, to describe Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail. The two leading roles in this set are taken by full-blooded opera singers in the shape of Helen Donath, Eva in Karajan’s Meistersinger, and Adolf Dallapozza, David in Solti’s first recording of the same work. Both of them also feature in the two leading roles of Humperdinck’s Königskinder, where their parts are decidedly in the ‘heavy’ league. Lehár originally wrote the leading tenor role for Richard Tauber — one of several stage works written with this singer in mind — and obviously expected something rather more than the usual light operetta voice in the part.
The work received a mixed reception from critics when it was new, many of the more conservative elements objecting to the portrayal on stage of Germany’s leading poet in the guise of a romantic lover. Goethe himself had already made his abortive love affair public in his own words, although according to Ingo Dorfmüller’s booklet note he was somewhat more than “economical with the truth” when describing events. The librettists Fritz Löhner and Ludwig Herzer toned down the more unsavoury aspects of Goethe’s conduct, but only at the expense of departing even further from reality. However they did preserve the parting of the two lovers at the end of the action, as indeed was not unusual in Lehár’s later operettas with their bitter-sweet conclusions. Lehár responded with music that avoided full symphonic gestures, but the orchestration is often more than a simple accompaniment. He did not shirk the use of Wagnerian leitmotifs in the construction of the score — although these usually take the form of orchestral recapitulations of earlier melodies rather than shorter symphonic phrases.
Yet we must be careful not to treat Friederike too seriously, either. Although it might seem to inhabit much the same world as Puccini’s La Rondine — which the composer originally intended to be treated as a ‘Viennese operetta’ — Puccini and Lehár were coming at their subjects from very different and opposite angles. The booklet notes on Goethe’s Sesenheim Idyll are dismissive of the poet’s fictionalisation of his own personal experiences, but surely Goethe was following in the footsteps of works such as Lawrence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, a novel which had a wide vogue on the Continent in both French and German translations during Goethe’s early years.
The pastoral overture, delivered with delicacy by the Munich orchestra under Wallberg, concludes with birdsong to depict the rural setting although the following dialogue is delivered in a very resonant indoor studio acoustic. The following musical numbers for the heroine are distinctly in operetta style interspersed with spoken dialogue; it is not until track 7, some ten minutes or so into Act One, that we have more extended musical material with the entry of Goethe himself. He has more substantial and serious writing to contend with, culminating with the eleven-minute finale to the Act which culminates in his O Mädchen, mein Mädchen which provided the one real ‘hit’ in the original score. In this number, written as a showpiece for Tauber, Adolf Dallapozza is described by Kurt Gänzl in his Musical Theatre on Record as “uncomfortable, even unsteady and verging on the out-of-tune”. This seems rather harsh; although he is admittedly not in his best voice, his well-rounded tones fit the role well, and even Gänzl admits that he “does some nice things”. Gänzl also complains of Helen Donath’s style in the title role, stating that a “much simpler voice or production is needed” – but again one welcomes the fact that the role is given the full measure of delivery that fits the subject. The secondary pair of singers, Martin Finke and Gabriele Fuchs, have more conventionally operetta-type voices but still strike the right sense of romantic warmth. These are the only soloists featured in Act One; on the second CD we encounter a whole bevy of female comprimario roles, which are taken well. The other male roles are all assigned to speaking actors, but their contributions are well integrated into the whole. The last Act, which terminates very abruptly, is less satisfactory musically than its predecessors (as is so often the case with Viennese operettas), but the final orchestral reminiscence of O Mädchen, mein Mädchen has quite enough sentiment to bring the idyll to a charming close.
This recording was the first complete Friederike in the catalogues – previous releases had only given excerpts from the score – and it does not appear to have had any successors. This one suffers perhaps from a surfeit of not very convincing sound effects — surely we do not need to hear the bleating lamb before Lenz’s Lämmchen brav — although the dialogue is well produced and delivered by the singers with a proper sense of engagement. Despite Gänzl’s strictures, the set was generally well received by both Gramophone and the Penguin Guide on its earlier CD reissue in 1994, and rightly so. One just wishes that this new version could have been better treated in terms of its presentation. The spoken dialogue, occupying some fifteen minutes (not all separately tracked), is pretty meaningless except to native German speakers. The missing material already exists in booklets for the original LP issues; could it not at the very least be made available online?
Paul Corfield Godfrey