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Emil Nikolaus Joseph von REZNIČEK (1860-1945)
Benzin – ‘A Cheerful Fantastic Play in Two Acts’
Kouta Räsänen (Bass) – Jeremias Thunderbolt (Billionaire)
Johanna Stojkovic (Soprano) – Gladys, his daughter
Guibee Yang (Soprano) – Violet, her friend
Susanne Thielemann (Soprano) – Lissy
Tiina Pentttiten (Contralto) – Nell
Thomas Mäthger (Bass) – Joe M. Plumcake, an admirer of Gladys
Heidrun Göpfert (Soprano) – an older woman
Matthias Winter (Baritone) - Meyer, Head Servant in Gladys’ Palace
Carsten Süss (Tenor) – Ulysses Eisenhardt, Commander of the Zeppelin
Andreas Kindschuh (Baritone) – Engineer
André Reimer (Tenor) – Radio Operator
Martin Gäbler (Bass) – Franz Xaver Obertupfer
Mathias Kunze (Tenor) – Müller
Peter Heber (Tenor) – Lehmann
Stephan Hönig (Bass) – A servant
Ulrike Bader (Soprano) – A lady
The Chemnitz Opera Choir/director Mary Adelyn Kauffman
The Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Frank Beerman
rec. live, Chemnitz Opera House, Saxony, November 2010
CPO 777 653-2 [2 CDs: 93:09]

“Gladys, the daughter of American billionaire Jeremias D. Thunderbolt resides on a mysterious island... it is on this island that the zeppelin commander Ulysses Eisenhardt has to make an emergency landing after he has run out of fuel during his world-record flight around the equator...” So states the synopsis for the start of Benzin - and who said opera could not stage real life situations realistically. Well, that is the point of this of engaging nonsense from the pen of Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek - as so often in his work he is cocking a snook at the absurdities and pretensions of the Classical Music scene and its conventions.

Of all the composers I am indebted to CPO for helping completely redefine my understanding of their work, Reznicek is one of the two or three that I rate most highly. This is not because he writes in a particularly challenging or unique manner but rather that I enjoy the sheer skill and range of his work. The problem, if problem it be, is that he often used his technical facility to parody or pastiche the work of others. This does result in occasions when the listener can ask whether the real Reznicek can stand up. That is certainly the case with this work which works on a complex if not convoluted web of musical and theatrical allusion. Add to that that the narrative while seeming ultra-modern in 1929 - the first transatlantic zeppelin flights had occurred the year before – is in fact a re-working of the Odysseus/Circe episode from The Odyssey. There are times when this piece feels as if it is out-operettaing Lehar, then it slips in a slightly queasy foxtrot or two and then elsewhere even Wagner gets a musical allusion.

It certainly makes for a fun listen but for all the skill with which it is fashioned I am not sure that the resultant work is one of Reznicek’s finest. In part due to the rise of the Nazis the work was never staged at the time of its writing or indeed during the composer’s lifetime and in fact the live performance enshrined here from 2010 was the work’s premiere. The conductor Frank Beermann has become something of a Reznicek specialist for CPO. Along with the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie and a very good and characterful cast from the Chemnitz Oper production, the work gets as good a debut recording as I think it possibly could. In fact, for a ‘live’ performance I would have to say this is technically one of the best I have heard. There is no audience noise of any kind and no obtrusive stage movement is audible, the voices stay in an excellent perspective to each other and the orchestra throughout and indeed the orchestra is recorded with a pleasing bloom and good detail. Reznicek deploys the voices to good if rather standard effect. The leading pair of Gladys and Ulysses are predictably cast as a dramatic soprano and a tenor. The second leads are Gladys’ friend Violet and the object of her desire Freidank, an engineer on the Zeppelin who is, no surprise, a baritone. Reznicek’s writing again teeters on the edge of pastiche - Violet is a soubrette role which one moment nods at Die Fledermaus and the next at Musetta. But it is very well sung here by Guibee Yang. As indeed are the other lead roles too.

The more I listen to this work, the more I admire the sheer craft of Reznicek’s writing but also I do wonder quite who he was writing it for. Consider the 1920’s purely in terms of stage music in Germany. This was an era of extraordinary experimentation and range; you have everything from Weill’s Threepenny Opera and Krenek’s Jonny Spielt auf through to the last great upheaval of post-Romantic Opera with Franz Schreker and Korngold, let alone Hindemith or Berg experimenting with new approaches or, indeed, the invention of Operas for Radio as celebrated on CPO in 3 excellent sets. And that is before operetta even gets a mention. The problem with Benzin, which I suspect Reznicek realised at the time, was that it tries to somehow tip its hat at all of these styles without managing to embody the best elements of any of them. So, the melodies are not quite memorable or the relationships not quite sentimental enough to be operetta, the comedy not quite sly or witty enough to be a Rossini, the drama not big enough for a Strauss, the use of the orchestra not overwhelming like a Korngold. The comedy is simply not that funny and the in-joke references to other works almost by definition too oblique and alienating for a wider audience.

This is the third Reznicek opera I have heard on CPO – Wikipedia lists some fourteen – and of the three this is the slightest. Donna Diana is well worth hearing if for no other reason than to realise how much good music there is in it aside from the Overture that for many years outside of Germany was the only reason you might know the composer’s name. Ritter Blaubart is a cracking work - a must-hear for those who like their opera red blooded and romantically powerful. Next to both those works (I do not think any others have made it onto disc) Benzin is neither fish nor fowl. But that is not to dismiss it out of hand. I am really pleased to have heard this work simply because it fills out another part of the jigsaw that is Reznicek’s fascinatingly individual output. Certainly this recording is as good as it possibly could be. Given CPO’s championing of the composer I wonder why it has languished in their vaults since being recorded in 2010 – perhaps they too feel it is not the composer’s finest hour? That said, they provide an excellent technical recording alongside a full libretto in German and English only, a detailed synopsis and an extended essay about the work alongside the usual artist biographies.

So, something for fellow Reznicek completists; more slow burn than rocket-fuelled.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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