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Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Blindekuh (Blind Man’s Buff), Operetta in three acts (1878)
Herr Scholle, landowner – Robert Davidson (bass-baritone)
Frau Arabella, his wife – Kirsten C. Kunkle (soprano)
Waldine, his daughter from his first marriage – Martina Bortolotti (soprano)
Hellmuth Forst – Roman Pichler (tenor)
Adolf Bothwell, Scholle’s nephew from America – James Bowers (tenor)
Betsy, Adolf’s wife – Andrea Chudak (soprano)
Herr Kragel, officer of the Court – Daniel Schliewa (tenor)
Fräulein Elvira, governess to Waldine – Emily K. Byrne (mezzo-soprano)
Johann, Scholle’s servant – Julian Rohde (tenor)
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus / Dario Salvi
rec. live, 7-13 January 2019 at Bulgaria Hall, Sofia, Bulgaria
NAXOS 8.660434-35 [49:55 + 55:16]

Blindekuh was Johann Strauss’s sixth operetta out of fifteen completed and performed works. To this can be added Wienerblut¸ which was compiled and arranged by Adolf Müller from existing Strauss music and with additional music by Josef Strauss. Strauss himself took no active part in the work and it was not performed until five months after his death. It was a lavish and expensive production but it survived only 30 performances, which led to a financial crisis and bankruptcy, after which the producer Franz Jauner shot himself. This was in 1899. Blindekuh 21 years earlier was even less of a success. It saw 16 performances at the Theater an der Wien before it closed down. It was revived the following year in Budapest and was broadcast by Radio Wien in 1935, but after that – silence. Until January 2019 when Dario Salvi and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra mounted it concertante – which resulted in the present World Premiere Recording. Blindekuh has, until now, remained the least known of Strauss’s operettas, and one may wonder why. The overture and several other numbers were culled from the score and presented, which was Strauss’s normal procedure, as orchestral numbers at his concerts and Strauss collectors may well know Kennst du mich?, Waltz Op. 381 or Pariser-Polka, Op 382. There is certainly nothing wrong with the music. What about Rudolf Kneisel’s libretto, based on a comedy of the same name? Yes, it is true that the Viennese newspaper Neue freie Presse ‘ascribed the lack of success to the mediocre quality of the somewhat confusing libretto’. So there’s the rub. And honestly, the reason why few of his other operettas, if we except Die Fledermaus, Der Zigeunerbaron and Eine Nacht in Venedig, are hardly ever played, is the same. It is in no way unique that librettos are inferior to the music and sometimes one listens to or watches a performance, while secretly blushing at absurdities in the texts. For this recording the production team has found the best possible solution: the musical score is recorded complete, while the spoken dialogue is completely abolished. But the synopsis describes what happens between the musical numbers – and is a comfort to know. It actually heightens the experience to just concentrate on the music.

The story is, as I intimated above, complicated and difficult to follow, not least for the participants, and I needn’t go into details. The title Blindekuh (Blind man’s buff) alludes to false identities but also to the fact that the guests actually play Blind man’s buff in the Act II finale. The action takes place in the mansion of a large country estate and the surrounding park. A herd of important guests are invited to a party and there is great uncertainty as to who is telling the truth and who is a liar. As always everything is sorted out in the last act, those who love each other get each other, and when Arabella, the hostess, asks: ‘But how did all this happen?’ she gets the answer: ‘Well we played the game of blind man’s buff!’ and the waltz theme that is first heard in the overture and then is heard in various disguises in the long finale to Act II, where the game is played, now returns for the last time as the curtain falls.

It shall be said at once that the ensemble go wholeheartedly into the game from the very beginning, and the high spirits are retained to the very end. The singing is a little variable but never less than professional and the acting is spirited, full of life and enthusiasm. The music is typically Strauss: waltzes, polkas and marches with catchy melodies and colourful orchestration. It may not be up to the artistic level of Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, not even Eine Nacht in Venedig, but there is nothing second-rate about it.

The quite long overture, after a restrained opening, soon catches fire and fizzes along at a playful lilt. Quite fun. The entrance of the guests with full chorus and soloists, is vivacious and here old Peter Petrov with his mighty bass impresses as Landrath von Silbertau. The servant Johann’s couplets (CD 1 tr. 4) is expressive and comic, Waldine and Elvina sing a charming duettino (tr. 5), and then comes Hellmuth, who turns out to be the principal tenor, and trumps them all with his couplets (tr. 6). It is a winner! It is immediately followed by his second couplets (tr. 7) – another winner – and a lively quartet (tr. 8). The first act finale is long and rather tumultuous up to the climax: a march in the best Straussian manner.

In the second act the melodic inspiration is less interesting, but the playing and acting as lively and entertaining as before, and the finale – with the Blindekuh theme – is highly inspired. The waltz is briefly heard at the beginning and makes itself remembered time and again as a series of variations, only to return at full swing at the end with some high coloratura decorations as an extra treat.

The short third act opens with a cotillion when the chorus enters. A polka terzett (CD 2 tr. 10) and a waltz quartet (tr. 11) lead over to Betsy’s couplets Küssen mag’ ich gar nicht gern (tr. 12). The situation is this: Adolf and Betsy, who are Americans, have revealed to Waldine that they are married. Waldine is surprised that they are not more intimate, and Betsy explains that in America kissing is seen as a superfluous waste of time! And then remains the short finale and the curtain falls.

I had a very nice couple of hours in the company of this score, and I don’t begrudge other lovers of Johann Strauss’s to follow my example. I believe chances are small that another recording of this forgotten work will appear within the foreseeable future – so grab the opportunity!

Göran Forsling

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