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Jaromir WEINBERGER (1896-1967)
Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer (Švanda dudák; Schwanda the Bagpiper) [140.27]
Folk opera in two acts (five scenes) – Libretto Miloš Kareš sung in Czech
Švanda (Schwanda) (baritone) – Christoph Pohl
Dorotka, his wife (soprano) – Marjorie Owens
Barbinský, a bandit (tenor) – Ladislav Elgr
Königin, (Ice Queen) (mezzo soprano) – Tichina Vaughn
Magier, (Magician) (bass) – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Teufel (Devil), (bass) – Michael Eder
Erster Landskneckt, Richter, Hollenhauptmann – Simeon Esper
Scharfrichter, Des Teufels Famulus – Timothy Oliver
Zweiter Landsknecht – Ilhun Jung
Production:
Stage direction – Axel Köhler
Sets – Arne Walther
Costumes – Henrike Bromber
Choreography – Gaetano Posterino
Choreography – Gaetano Posterino
Lighting – Fabio Antoci
Choir – Christof Bauer
Dramaturgy – Nora Schmid
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden/Constantin Trinks
rec. live performance 24th March 2012, Semperoper, Dresden, Germany
(MDR Figaro recording)
No sung texts provided
Semperoper Edition Vol. 8
PROFIL PH13039 [66.25 + 74.02]

This Profil set contains the live 2012 broadcast recording of the popular opera Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer (Czech: Švanda dudák; Schwanda the Bagpiper) from the Semperoper, Dresden sung in Czech.

Prague born Czech/American composer Jaromír Weinberger in 1927 completed one of the most successful operas between the two world wars Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer. Like Weinberger, who died by his own hand in obscurity in the USA, his masterwork Schwanda has been largely forgotten today. Weinberger, along with a twin sister, was born in 1896 in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Weinberger’s Prague suburb many educated middle class inhabitants spoke German as their first language and Weinberger’s surname is German. A precocious student Weinberger was taught by Novak at Prague Conservatory and Reger at Leipzig Conservatory. In 1922 Weinberger unexpectedly moved to New York where he took up positions as an instructor at Cornell University then as a composition professor at Ithaca Conservatory. Upon his homecoming to Czechoslovakia he was appointed director of the National Theatre in Bratislava and later Eger, Hungary and Prague.

After its successful première at Prague in 1927 Schwanda was soon staged round the world as far afield as Buenos Aires, with the libretto translated into 17 languages. It was first produced at Dresden in 1930 and a year later staged at the Metropolitan Opera, New York and London, and by the end of 1931 it had been staged over 2000 times providing the composer with substantial royalties. In 1933 the Nazi’s banned Jewish music, a ruling which hit the Jewish Weinberg hard. Consequently Schwanda was ignored, particularly in the composer’s Czech homeland during German occupation. Suffering from depression Weinberger may have died in tragic circumstances from an overdose but his opera Schwanda in two acts (five scenes) is certainly not dour or morose and abounds with charm and humour. Inspired by a well known Czech folk tale Schwanda tells the fantastic story of a simple farmer, a gifted bagpiper, who meets Babinski a thief who is on the run.

In 1938 Weinberger was compelled to leave Europe via France settling in the USA. It was in 1950 that Schwanda was revived at Dresden with Karl Paul in the title role but it failed to establish itself in the repertoire. In the early 1990s Ulrike Hessler, intendant at Semperoper Dresden, saw Schwanda in a concert performance at Herkulessaal Munich that “made a lasting impression on me.” Artistic director at Semperoper Dresden Eytan Pessen saw a concert staging at Augsburg and was equally impressed; so the seeds were sown for the Semperoper to plan a new production. Not surprisingly the new 2012 Dresden production directed by Axel Köhler stimulated much attention and here is the MDR Figaro recording from the Semperoper broadcast live to around twenty European counties.

Hearing this work for the first time I find this a compelling performance making me wish I had been in the Semperoper on the night of this recording. It is small compensation but the colour pictures in the booklet do go some way in providing a sense of Axel Köhler’s production in particular the sets by Arne Walther and Henrike Bromber’s costumes. Powerful and direct, Weinberger’s overture, a mix of influences, reminded me at times of Richard Strauss and Dvořák. It evokes nature, forests and streams; a generally fresh outdoor scene. A constant delight, the music demonstrates the composer’s innate instinct for lyricism and melody over firm rhythms, The Overture (CD 1, track 1), the celebrated scene 2 Polka (CD 1, track 12) and the Odzemek dance from scene 3 (CD 2, track 6) are particularly fine examples, with the orchestra playing so impressively. Baritone Christoph Pohl sings Schwanda the magic bagpiper, a part that has little in the way of conventional arias. A highlight and the nearest to a standard aria for Schwanda is the arresting ‘Coz zapomenout mozno v srdci uprimnem na svoji rodnou zem’ (CD 2, track 13) demonstrating Pohl’s gratifying voice which is well focused with excellent enunciation and clear projection. This is a strong and engaging performance from Marjorie Owens as Dorotka. In scene 3 ‘O, já neštastná!’ and ‘Na tom našem dvoře’ (CD 2, tracks 9, 10) the soprano sings beautifully and demonstrates her ability to soar fluently to her high register. On the other hand, at times I find her wide vibrato slightly distracting.

Probably the most spectacular role is the happy-go-lucky bandit Barbinský with the two main arias of the opera sung here very adeptly by tenor Ladislav Elgr. Babinsky’s scene 1 ballad ‘Zda znáš tu slavnou báj’ (CD1, track 6) is rendered smoothly and with focus. From scene 3 in Babinsky’s arioso ‘O, já nestaštná!’ (CD 2, track 9) the tenor is in striking voice, conveying an authentic feeling for the words with affective expression and revealing his smooth high register. Memorable too is the scene 3 trio of the main characters Babinsky, Schwanda and Dorota (CD 2, track 7) with their voices blending together admirably. As the Ice Queen mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn gives a solid performance of real personality, displaying her strong, attractive voice with noticeably clear diction and projection. In the two bass parts Tilmann Rönnebeck as the Magician makes a good impression and Michael Eder playing the Devil is in his usual reliable voice. Relishing the music, well rehearsed as usual, the Staatsopernchor sing responsively in both expression and unity. The Staatskepelle Dresden under Constantin Trinks play splendidly, providing energy and vivid tonal colour although the loudness retained on the recording is a problem at times.

As a bonus the final track on the set is a historic recording of Karl Paul’s 1950 Schauspielhaus Dresden performance of Schwanda’s aria with a German text ‘Wie kann ich denn vergesse, was mein Liebstes war?’ (CD 2, track 25). Vividly recorded this is a quite magnificent performance from the rich toned baritone Paul who is on striking form.

In the lavishly produced booklet in German and English there are several fascinating and detailed articles, a short interview with Axel Köhler and Christoph Pohl, biographies and a number of historic photographs. Sadly no sung texts are provided but there is a scene by scene synopsis. The sound team has ensured the sound is to a good standard clear and close with some minor distortion in the forte passages. As this is a live recording there is stage and audience noise including applause to consider.

For those who are looking for opera that is both high quality and somewhat off the beaten track this 2012 Dresden performance of Schwanda the Bagpiper eminently fits the bill.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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