Emmerich KÁLMÁN (1882 – 1953) Kaiserin Josephine (1936)
Napoleon Bonaparte – Vincent Schirrmacher
Josephine Beauharnais – Miriam Portmann
Eugen Beauharnais – Constantin Zeilner
Paul Barras – Paul Schmitzberger
Talleyrand – Alois Walchshofer
Hippolyte Charles – August Schram
Herzogin von Aiguillon – Dorli Buchinger
General Berthien – Steven Scheschareg
General Junot – Valentin Trandafir
General Murat – Claudiu Sola
Capitain Calmelet – Josef Krenslehner
Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl
Franz Lehár-Orchester/Marius Burkert
rec. live, Festspielsaal Bad Ischl, 11-13 August 2017
Synopsis in German and English enclosed CPO 555 136-2 [71:58 +73:43]
Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán were the leading composers of what has been called the “Silver Age” of Viennese operetta. Both were Hungarian of birth, both had assimilated the folk dances and melodic flavour of their native land, both were influenced by Puccini – with a spoonful of Tchaikovsky added to Kálmán’s casseroles – both eventually landed in Vienna and became world famous. Lehár, being the older by twelve years, naturally took the lead with Die lustige Witwe (1906) but Kálmán was an early starter and scored international successes with two Hungarian language operettas Tatárjárás (1908) and Az obsitos (1910) before he in 1912 conquered Vienna with Der Zigeunerprimas. His real breakthrough came in 1915 with Die Csárdásfürstin, a work that has held its position as a fixed star on the operetta sky ever since. In the 1920s there was a string of successes: Die Bajadere (1921) (review), Gräfin Mariza (1924), Die Zirkusprinzessin (1926) and in 1930 Das Veilchen vom Montmartre. With the Nazi boots marching in the political horizon darkened in the early 1930s, and Kálmán being Jewish felt the threat. By all means Adolf Hitler was extremely fond of his operettas and even, after the Anschluss, offered him to become an 'honorary Aryan’. But Kálmán rejected the offer and left Austria for Paris and then the US, where he settled with his family in California. After the war he returned to Europe and Vienna, wherefrom he moved to Paris, and there he died in 1953.
When he composed Kaiserin Josephine in the mid-thirties – it was premiered in 1936 – the Nazi threat was very tangible, and I believe he was more concerned about the perspective of the future than anything else. He may also have felt that he had lost the inspiration of his youth, maybe also feared that he couldn’t live up to expectations after so many box-office successes. Whatever the reason(s) Kaiserin Josephine seems pale and watered-down. Everything is professionally done but only occasionally does the music catch fire. One such moment is at the beginning of the third scene (there are eight in all) (CD 1 tr. 10). Although named “Melodram” it is a vocal scene for Josephine and chorus with Hungarian flavour. Also at the end of the same scene there is a duet with Josephine and Bonaparte (CD 1 tr. 17) and here one recognizes the Kálmán of his silvery days. The long finale of Scene four, which spills over to the second CD, finds Kálmán at his best.
Scene five takes place in Napoleon’s military quarters and the music is typically warlike, but then there is a change of mood with a beautiful cello solo and then Bonaparte has a romantic solo in ž-time. Here it’s back to good old times again. The melody is memorable and the inspiration last long enough to allow Josephine to follow up with her song Mein Traum, mein Traum (CD 2 tr. 4). In the sixth scene one hopes for Bonaparte’s solo, Schön ist der Tag (CD 2 tr. 11) to be something exceptional. It is a highlight, it is well sung but it isn’t quite that compelling. There are a couple of minor highlights on the way to the concluding Coronation Scene, which in good operetta tradition is a mass scene in ž-time, pompous indeed, and then the Coronation March, which in fact is quite impressive.
The story is straightforward but has its nooks and crannies before it lands in a happy end: A poor Creole widow, Josephine, lives in Paris with her son Eugene. A fortune teller predicts that she will become Empress. Through an influential friend she meets Napoleon, who is a young General. He is interested in her, she isn’t in him. Then her son is arrested at a demonstration and Napoleon helps to get him out of prison. Now Josephine becomes interested. They marry. Napoleon is in his military camp and misses Josephine but she has become interested in another man. When she finally agrees to meet her husband she has her new admirer with her, hoping to make a career through Napoleon. Napoleon unmasks him as a coward and Josephine understands that he is a fortune-hunter. At long last Napoleon and Josephine reunite and they are crowned Empress and Emperor. The fortune teller’s prediction came true.
The choral and orchestral forces of the Bad Ischl Festival are since many years well versed in this repertoire and the soloists are convincing in their roles. The recording is worthy of the occasion but there are a lot of stage noises at the beginning, as though people were running about all the time. On the other hand there is no applause, not even after the majestic finale. There are informative notes, artist’s biographies and illustrations, but I am a bit disappointed at the lack of libretto and the synopsis is very brief.
Kaiserin Josephine is not on the same level, musically, as Kálmán’s earlier successes, and those who are interested in lesser known works by him should in the first place go to Die Bajadere. The real operetta freaks will probably want this one as well, and it has several good things to offer, but be prepared to meet “real” Kálmán with water.
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