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Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Simplicius - opera in 3 Acts (1887) [132:00]
Wendelin von Grübben - Michael Volle
Simplicius - Martin Zysset
General von Vliessen - Rolf Haunstein
Hildegarde - Elizabeth Magnuson
Arnim von Grübben - Piotr Beczała
Melchior - Oliver Widmer
Schnapslotte - Louise Martini
Tilly - Martina Janková
Ebba - Liliana Nikiteanu
Sergeant - Cheyne Davidson
Foreign cuirassier - Heikki Yrttiaho
Officer - Jörg Heppe
First soldier - Meinolf Kakuhl
Children's Choir of the Zurich Opera House
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House/Franz Welser-Möst
Stage director: David Pountney
rec. live, Zurich Opera House, 2000
Sound: PCM stereo, DD5.1, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture: 16:9/1080i High Definition (upscale)
Region: worldwide
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 108127 [132:00]

Opera: an extended dramatic work in which music constitutes a dominating feature, either consisting of separate recitatives, arias, and choruses, or having a continuous musical structure.
 
Operetta: a type of comic or light-hearted opera.
 
[Collins English Dictionary (London, 1979), pp. 1030-1031.]

It's worth making that difference in definition clear before we go any further, because the producers of this Blu-ray Disc seem to be having a little trouble on that score. Thus, while the title page of the accompanying booklet boldly states that this is an "opera in three acts", the closing credits of the recording itself are in no doubt that we have been watching an "operetta in three acts".

According to Volkmar Fischer's booklet notes, Strauss himself originated the confusion by failing to place Simplicius in either category. While Mr Fischer is initially inclined to some airy speculation that the composer might thereby have been "rejecting all naivety in terms of the established genres of musical stage performance", he later suggests more convincingly that it was simply the work's curiously hybrid nature. Combining a libretto and subject matter suggestive of grand opera with Strauss's characteristically light-hearted, foot-tapping Viennese dance music has precluded its definitive allocation to one camp or the other.

It is, perhaps, that rather odd dichotomy that has militated against Simplicius's acceptance by audiences. Opera house directors have generally steered well clear of it: the Zurich performance presented here records, for instance, the very first production of the work ever mounted in Switzerland.

Given both Simplicius's unfamiliarity and, as we shall see, the very distinctive nature of this production, it is worth outlining its plot. Count von Grübben, disgusted by the violence of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), has become a forest hermit and has brought up his young son Simplicius in ignorance of the moral depravity of the outside world. Captured by soldiers, the boy serves in their camp where he continually demonstrates his naïveté about women, warfare and "civilised" life in general. Meanwhile, two rival claimants to the apparently vacant von Grübben title appear, hoping to win both the family inheritance and the hand of the beautiful noblewoman Hildegarde. After various complications, one of them is revealed as Count von Grübben's hitherto supposedly lost elder son - and hence the genuine heir - and the other as a charlatan. Simplicius himself, meanwhile, discovers love for himself with one of the camp followers. The brothers are thereupon reunited with their father.

That simplified synopsis might suggest that the Simplicius story could easily be treated in a genial, light-hearted way. In reality, its themes - and sometimes its actual language - are, given the period and setting, understandably very dark, with pointed emphasis on conflict and violence.

It is reckoned that a quarter of the German population was killed in the course of the Thirty Years War and, quite remarkably, even in the 1960s German respondents in public opinion polls still ranked that conflict as the greatest disaster in their country's history; worse than either world war or even the Holocaust (Peter H. Wilson Europe's tragedy: a new history of the Thirty Years War [London, 2009], p. 6). It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that David Pountney's direction, Johan Engels' striking designs and Thomas Grimm's direction for video ensure that the destructively militaristic side of the story is hardly ever allowed to escape the viewer's consciousness. Even where Strauss's score sometimes suggests that the soldier's career might be one of high adventure and excitement, this production successfully negates any such thought. Thus, as the massed soldiery opens Act 2 with a jaunty chorus in praise of war and the opportunities it offers, their sentiments are visually undermined by their ragged and decrepit appearance, as well as by a range of massive skeletal structures placed across the back of the stage to offer a constant reminder of the reality of ever-present death on the battlefield. Similarly, the soothing effect of the delicious waltz (Ich denke gern zurück) that Strauss pens for Act 3 is subverted by the fact that corpses hanging from a gallows in the background begin swinging their decaying limbs grotesquely in time to the music. In the same manner, a chorus that Strauss wrote to be sung by Swedish prisoners-of-war is actually performed in this production by a choir of children's decaying corpses. Throughout the production, in fact, a series of striking visual elements - including enormous mechanical armoured soldiers, giant jackboots and a general who harangues his troops very much in the manner of Hitler addressing a Nuremberg rally - all hammer home the brutal reality of conflict.

The cast generally does a good job, though sometimes appearing - perhaps understandably - a little bemused by what's going on around them. I particular enjoyed Piotr Beczała's frequently tongue-in-cheek take on Arnim von Grübben, while Martina Janková also impressed me as the cheerily buxom camp follower Tilly. Both sing strongly and with great technical assurance, as well as entering into the spirit of the piece with real flair and enthusiasm. Martin Zysset, in the tricky central role of Simplicius, tries hard to create a believable character but I was ultimately unconvinced. In part that was because the one-dimensional nature of the part precludes much in the way of moral or emotional development but Zysset also lacks stage presence. At the same time, several of his comic set-pieces seem to fall flat, though, to be fair, the same problem characterises virtually every other performance and may simply be the result of the Swiss audience's reluctance to laugh when confronted with such dark themes and visuals. The Zurich Opera House orchestra, under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst, gives a good account of the score and effectively supports the busy on-stage action.

The original visual image of this 15 years old recording has been upscaled to High Definition quality and, while not perhaps as pin-sharp as the most modern technology would produce, is pleasing to look at even on a 50" TV screen. Sound quality is also fine. The English subtitling is generally well done and an occasional error ("trees" becomes "tress" at one point) is easily forgiven. Such an infrequently heard score might have benefited from an extra explanatory feature or two, but Arthaus offers us none.

While, on the basis of this disc, it is clear that Simplicius is worth an occasional airing, it is also easy to see why the work hasn't enjoyed more success over the years. Those attracted by Strauss's typically upbeat and frothy music may well have been alienated by its serious subject matter. Meanwhile, others may have found the score too trite and trivial for some of the darker issues thrown up by the story. While neither group may find this performance entirely satisfactory, many may consider it worth acquiring both for its rarity value and for the thoughtful take that it offers on this curious oddity that can't make up its mind whether it's opera or operetta.

Rob Maynard