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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948) Die lustige Witwe (1905)
Graf Danilo Danilowitsch – Iurii Samoilov (baritone)
Hanna Glawari – Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Baron Mirko Zeta – Barnaby Rea (bass)
Valencienne – Kateryna Kasper (soprano)
Camille de Rosillon – Martin Mitterutzner (tenor)
Vicomte de Cascada – Theo Lebow (tenor)
Raoul de St. Brioche – Michael Porter (tenor)
Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester/Joana Mallwitz
rec. live, May/June 2018, Oper Frankfurt
Synopsis in German and English enclosed OEHMS CLASSICS OC983 [32:29 + 64:04]
Ever since the premiere at the Theater an der Wien on 30 December 1905, Die lustige Witwe has been a success around the world – and still is – and there are quite a number of complete – or near complete – recordings, available on CD and DVD: Ackermann (1953), Stolz (1958), von Matacic (1962), Karajan (1972), Wallberg (1980), Welser-Möst (1993) and Gardiner (1994) are probably the pick of the crop and can be warmly recommended to first-time buyers or those who are contemplating alternative versions. All of those mentioned have stellar casts, and even though there may be the odd weak member the total experience should satisfy most operetta lovers, whichever version one choses. This newcomer has, in other words, stiff competition.
To begin with it was recorded live before an audience during performances at Oper Frankfurt during May and June 2018. The technical quality of Oehms’ recordings there is generally excellent. The production team have worked for several years and the placing of microphones is painstakingly worked out to provide as perfect balance within the orchestra as possible, as well as between stage and pit. In fact I have never heard in any of the recordings I own so much orchestral detail in this score. It should be remembered that Lehár was an eminent orchestrator, and even as early as 1905 when he still was in the beginning of his operetta career, he had a fine ear for orchestral subtleties. The voices of soloists and chorus are also realistically caught. But – and that can be a small ‘but’ or an unsurmountable ‘but’, depending on one’s sensitivity to extraneous noises – the microphones also catch with the same clarity and precision all the bumps that are unavoidable during a real performance, the stamps of dancing feet, and also the audience’s reactions. Laughs and giggles are quite charming the first time – just as one fully accepts those sounds when watching a live performance in the opera house – but the fifteenth time …? Applause is another matter. It seems that some of it has been edited out, but a lot remains – and it is nice the first few times, but then …?
Let me say at once that this is not a particularly noisy performance, and only the most over-sensitive readers should unhesitatingly skip this recording and go for one of the studio efforts. It should also be said that the Welser-Möst recording mentioned above was recorded live, although at a concert performance where stage noises are relatively limited. While we are talking sonics I also want to pay attention to the balance between the singing and the spoken dialogue: Many times, whether on studio recordings or live ditto, I have had to turn up the volume as soon as the dialogue begins and then quickly turn it down again when the music begins, to avoid damages on eardrums or valuable crystal vases. On this recording the balance is just about right, but when people on stage get excited and speak all at once – then there are problems. But it’s still a marginal problem. So the prerequisites for an enjoyable evening in one’s favourite chair are well catered for. We can with confidence examine whether the musical side of this production is up to the mark. The short orchestral introduction is swift and energetic and promises well. Joana Mallwitz is a conductor who wants things to move – no dragging here. But is she too hot-tempered? She is decisively not. But she is very flexible and excels in heavy rubatos, giving the soloists opportunities to mould phrases in a personal way. In particular Graf Danilo Danilowitsch, the Ukrainian-born baritone Jurii Samoilov loves to linger on phrases where he can expose both the beauty of his voice and the maximal feeling of the situation. The Ballsirenen waltz (CD 1 tr. 8) sometimes almost comes to a standstill, but the effect is magical. I love it, but I can imagine listeners who write it off as idiosyncratic and playing to the gallery. In my ears it only injects even more life in the scene. Robert Stolz, who was 78 when he conducted the first stereo recording of Die lustige Witwe, and had known the music since it was new, also took liberties – and with magical effect. I was raptured throughout the performance. The playing of the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester is up their normal standard, i. e. very high, and this also goes for the chorus.
The performance as such is full of life and high spirits – sometimes a mite too much. There is a tendency that some of the spoken dialogue and busy scenes becomes a bit crude, slightly exaggerated, at a live performance. This works well in the theatre when you see the action and the actors, but just hearing them can be a little over-the-top. In a studio Baron Zeta and Njegus would probably have been more recessed.
When it comes to the singing of the main soloists I am quite overwhelmed. The two sopranos, Marlis Petersen (Hanna Glawari) and Kateryna Kasper (Valencienne) are superb. A couple of times I thought that maybe they should have changed roles. Marlis Petersen has a marvellous voice, bright and with glittering height, but occasionally she could have probed deeper into the character of Hanna. I still hear Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s readings in either of her two recordings within me. On the other hand I know that some commentators find her too sophisticated, too arch. Tastes differ and Marlis Petersen’s Hanna is a fully valid assumption. The Vilja-Lied is as good as any’s and the duets with Danilo highlights. I reviewed a Lieder disc with Kateryna Kasper quite recently (review) and liked her a lot, and here she turns in a reading of Valencienne’s role that is wholly captivating: beauty of tone, nuanced and charming.
Louis Treumann, the first Danilo, was a tenor, but few of the recorded Danilos have been tenors. Of the recordings mentioned above only Per Grundén (Stolz) and René Kollo (Karajan) are tenors. Jurii Samoilov is, like the others, baritone but an uncommonly light and flexible baritone with easy delivery, very beautiful tone and sings so softly and nuanced without losing the baritonal timbre. He can be strong and dramatic, as in his entrance song, O Vaterland … Da geh’ ich zu Maxim (CD 1 tr. 6) and in the end of Es waren zwei Königskinder (CD 2 tr. 9), but his general characteristic is his ability to cover every facet of the role. And no one, to my mind, has sung the opening of the third act duet Lippen schweigen (CD 2 tr. 15) with such beauty. The soprano singing opposite him there must have a heart of stone to not fall in his arms. The fourth main character, Camille de Rosillon, is sung by Martin Mitterrutzner and he isn’t quite on the same level as the others. He has a good tenor voice, but he tends to be too overtly operatic and becomes hammy. Camille is a lyrical Frenchman and for me he is Nicolai Gedda in the two Schwarzkopf recordings, whose half-voice is marvellous. In the second act scene with Valencienne, Mitterrutzner sings Wie eine Rosenknospe (CD 2 tr. 7) he sings with a good deal of lyric restraint and when he invites Valencienne to the pavilion he really caresses the phrases beautifully.
After almost 115 years Die lustige Witwe is still fresh as paint – if one can accept that a lot has changed in the world since then – and a good recording is always welcome. This newcomer doesn’t make the already existing recordings redundant, but it joins them on the Parnassus of operetta. Lovers of Die lustige Witwe will find a lot to admire here – in particular the singing of Danilo and the two ladies.