September 21, 2006


Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Revised text edition by Michael Schottenberg. Alfred Eschwé conducting Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien and Festival-Chor KlangBogen Wien. CPO. $33.99 (DVD).

     It can certainly be argued that Der Graf von Luxemburg, one of Franz Lehár’s most charming scores, can use an updating.  After all, the Ruritanian world of the operetta, in which an arranged marriage-and-divorce is needed so that a woman can obtain a noble title and therefore be an appropriate match for the titled older man who desires her as his wife, is long, long gone.

     Unfortunately, this 2005 production of a botched revision of the original book by Alfred Maria Willner and Robert Bodanzky isn’t the sort of update this marvelous work deserves.  Set as a quasi-La Bohème in the mid-20th century, the work is so silly and so lacking in coherence that only the gorgeous music makes the DVD worth having at all.

     In Michael Schottenberg’s reductio ad absurdum, the Count (Bo Skovhus) isn’t a count at all, but the author of a still-unfinished book called Der Graf von Luxemburg – who is therefore called by that title by everyone.  The original Russian noble, Basil Basilowitsch, here called Basil Basilowitsch-Kokosov (Andreas Conrad), becomes a consul who wants Angèle, here called Angelika (Juliane Banse), as his mistress, not his wife, but for some never-clear reason wants her to be married and divorced first – married not for a three-month period, as in the original work, but for 48 hours.  Basil, whose betrothed becomes a dea ex machina in the original, is in this version already married to Anastasia Iwanova Kokosowa (Eva Maria Marold).

     The operetta’s second couple gets recast, too: here the man is not painter Armand Brissart, but student artist Manfred Prskawetz (Rainer Trost); he is paired with dancer Julie (not Juliette) Vermont (Gabriela Bone), and the two have known each other for only two days when the work opens.  The hectic pace and compressed time scheme are perhaps supposed to make things seem to move along smartly, but all they really do is create confusion – to which the uneven microphone placement adds its own problems (for instance, Skovhus is almost inaudible through much of the first act).

     The rearrangements of Lehár’s set pieces don’t help, either.  For example, there is a charming scene in the original in which Basil, doubting Angèle’s love, asks Juliette to intercede for him by explaining to Angèle what a skilled dancer and playboy he was in his youth.  In the Schottenberg version, this becomes a Basil-Julie duet whose purpose is to poke fun at Basil’s inflated view of himself while subjecting him to physical comedy.  Charm has turned to cheap laughs.

     Speaking of cheap laughs, that’s all there is to the third act here: it is played as a bedroom farce, with lots of people running in and out of rooms while, in the hotel lobby, Kokosowa strips to her underwear – even as she seeks out her errant husband because she loves him so much.

     How incoherent.  What a mess.

     Much (though not all) of the music, thankfully, has been left intact, and this production is successful exactly to the extent that the music is untouched.  (This leads to some odd moments, as when the lead female is called Angèle in arias but Angelika in dialogue.)  Alfred Eschwé conducts briskly and precisely, and the orchestra and chorus are top-notch.  All the primary singers are enthusiastic, with Skovhus and Banse especially good in their heartfelt duets – some of Lehár’s loveliest.  Even in the love scenes, though, Schottenberg cannot resist ham-handed tampering: the beautiful songs in which the Count recognizes his temporary wife through her Trèfle incarnat (pink clover) perfume are undermined when it turns out that this is really the scent of Basil’s aftershave, through which Kokosowa realizes Basil is in the hotel.  (Kokosowa’s introductory aria, unfortunately, is dropped and replaced, because the original deals with her determination to marry Basil after a years-long engagement – a state of affairs at variance with Schottenberg’s inferior reworking of the book.)

     Der Graf von Luxemburg – the Willner-Bodanzky version, that is – is emphatically worthy of more frequent performances than it receives.  It could still work either as a fairy tale of an earlier time, or in an updated form.  But not in Schottenberg’s, which neither preserves all the music (which should be the No. 1 requirement for any revision of such a wonderful work) nor creates a story more believable to a modern audience than the original was.  This DVD is little more than a hint of what a modernized version of Der Graf von Luxemburg could be.

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