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Johann STRAUSS II (1825–1899)
Ritter Pásmán - Comic Opera in three acts (1892)
Ritter Pásmán – Eberhard Waechter (baritone)
Karl Robert von Anjou, King of Hungaria – Josef Hopferwieser (tenor)
Die Königin / The Queen – Sona Ghazarian (soprano)
Eva – Trudeliese Schmidt (mezzo-soprano)
Rodamonte, Count Jester – Artur Korn (bass)
Hofmarschall Omodé – Horst Witsche (tenor)
Gundy, Eva’s lady’s maid – Axelle Gall (contralto)
Mischu, Pásmán’s Knave – Peter Drahnosch (tenor)
ORF Chor, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Heinz Wallberg
rec live Musikverein, Vienna, 27 October 1975
Complete Ballet Music
No. 1 Polka [5:02]
No. 2 Andante grazioso – Walzer [9:01]
No. 3 Czardas [5:15]
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra/Alfred Walter
rec. House of Arts, Košice 26-30 August 1993
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
ORFEO C200062 [65:03 + 68:08]

Johann Strauss was highly successful as a composer of dance music during the second half of the 19th century, and many of his waltzes and polkas are still popular, not least through the New Year’s concert from the Musikverein in Vienna, which is telecast worldwide. He also composed fifteen operettas, of which Die Fledermaus became a world hit – and still is. Der Zigeunerbaron and Eine Nacht in Venedig are also frequently played, but the rest have never really got a foothold in the repertoire. The music is wonderful, but they generally suffer from bad librettos. I have reviewed many of them, and when the singing is good, they are well worth a listen – and there is no need to bother about the stories.

Towards the end of his life, he wanted to widen his scope further and set out to write a ‘real’ opera. That was Ritter Pásmán, which was premiered at the Vienna Court Opera on 1 January 1892. Expectations were high but neither the audience nor the critics were enthusiastic after the premiere. ‘A banal plot’ and ‘musically undistinguished’, were a couple of comments, and it only survived for nine performances. The present recording, from a concert performance at the Vienna Musikverein in 1975, is the first ever issued on CD and, as far as I understand, in any format. The recorded sound is fully acceptable for a 46-year-old recording, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra should quite likely have Strauss’s music in their blood, as should conductor Heinz Wallberg, German by birth but for many years active in Vienna. So, the fundamental prerequisites are promising.

The story is another matter. It takes place in the early 14th century and is a triangle drama that involves King Charles I of Hungary, the Hungarian knight Pásmán and the latter’s young wife Eva. The King takes part – incognito – in a hunt and in Pásmán’s castle he meets Eva. They have a little flirt and when they meet again in Act II, the King is disguised as Pásmán. He makes advances but when Eva finds out that it isn’t her husband, she objects strongly; the King respects her and only kisses her forehead. Pásmán learns that this has happened and turns to the King to get revenge, not knowing that it was the King who gave Eva that innocent kiss. When all details are sorted out, the Queen finds a solution: she allows Pásmán to kiss her forehead!

A rather meagre plot for a through-composed opera, you may think – even though it is a comic opera. The Viennese operagoers obviously thought the same and, to tell the truth, the music does little to remedy the lack of a juicy story. It is professionally constructed, the orchestration is in Strauss’s best vein, but one sorely misses the catchy tunes that had been Strauss’s hallmark for so many years. Maybe he took his task to compose an opera too seriously and forgot that he wasn’t a dramatist in the first place, but that he was second to none as a tunesmith. By all means, there are some lively choruses, there are occasionally Hungarian rhythms, but we have to wait until the beginning of Act II, the scene where the King kisses Eva’s forehead, for a good old melody to savour, in Eva’s waltz song O Gold’ne Frucht. And the audience in the Musikverein thought so too and awarded it a round of applause – for the tune and the singing by Trudeliese Schmidt.

After that there isn’t much to remember. Pásmán has an aria later in the same act, the longest solo in the work, and though it isn’t very enticing musically speaking, it gives Eberhard Waechter an opportunity to abandon his constant hammy forte-singing and show that he has a limited supply of softer nuances – but his tone is ugly and wobbly. Being a beloved artist for many years in Vienna, the audience thought him worthy of applause, despite the scant appeal.

But in the third act we are finally rewarded for persisting listening: the czardas rings out with rhythmic elan and colour, and the orchestra seems revitalised, as though they have also been waiting for this. For me it was also a wonderful trip of nostalgia, since this piece was the filler on my second LP, with three of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, and this ballet piece was even more Hungarian than Liszt’s pieces. The joy is repeated on the bonus tracks, where the complete ballet music is performed by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Walter, included here by kind permission of Marco Polo. The polka is elegant, the waltz is partly languorous in true Straussian manner, without being top-notch, but the concluding czardas certainly made me turn off the CD-player with a satisfied sigh: At last!

The singing is varied, to say the least. Eberhard Waechter in the title role is a great disappointment, considering his high reputation and many wonderful recordings. His Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva with Giulini are legends, his Danilo in Die lustige Witwe opposite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is to my mind still unbeatable, to mention just a few. Here he sounds distinctly past the “buy before” date – and he was still just in his mid-forties.

It is a relief to hear Artur Korn’s sonorous bass as the court jester Rodomonte as a contrast. Born in 1937, and thus in his late 30s when this recording was made, he had an exceedingly long career. I heard him as Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth in 2008, and he was then past 70 and still in healthy voice! Josef Hopferwieser, in the role of King Charles I, here sports a brilliant tenor, which allowed him to take on heroic roles like Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. He is really thrilling. I heard him too, much later, at the Vienna State Opera, still in excellent shape. His Alfred in Die Fledermaus, issued on Naxos in 1993, is a worthy memento to his longevity.

Peter Drahosch as Mischu, Pásmán’s knave, is a lively buffo – and one of the few who understands that this is a comic opera. Sona Ghazarian, here at the beginning of a long and illustrious career, is the Queen; she only appears in the last act and has little time to make her mark. Hers is a well-schooled light soprano, sounding a little uncomfortable up high, but still agreeable. Quite the best singing per se comes from mezzo-soprano Trudeliese Schmidt, who sings Eva. Her duets with Hopferwieser’s Charles I are highlights vocally – unfortunately she also seems to believe that the opera is a tragedy. Maybe it is Heinz Wallberg’s fault that the Straussian glitter is underplayed. He has otherwise been a responsive conductor in this kind of repertoire. His Die lustige Witwe with Edda Moser and Hermann Prey is a good example of that.

All in all, this recording is a mixed blessing. It isn’t quite top-drawer Strauss, and the last ounce of charm and comedy is missing. Waechter’s singing is a serious blemish. On the other hand, much of the singing is good, and if you don’t bother about the story – which is silly anyway – you can derive quite a lot of pleasure. This is the only recording of Ritter Pásmán, and it seems unlikely that another one will appear in a hurry.

Göran Forsling

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