Franz von Suppé: Fatinitza. Stephanie Houtzeel, mezzo-soprano; Steven Scheschareg, baritone; Zora Antonic, soprano; Christian Bauer, tenor; Bernhard Adler, bass-baritone; Gerhard Balluch, actor; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Vinzenz Praxmarer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
If you know history, know operetta and know German, you’ll have an absolutely wonderful time with this complete recording of Fatinitza. If your knowledge in any of the three areas falls short, however, the entire production will fall a bit flat. Or more than a bit.
First, history. The operetta is set during and after the Crimean War, and if you don’t know something about that mid-19th-century conflict between Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the character parodies here will make little sense – especially those of the buffoonish General Timosey Kantschukoff (Steven Scheschareg) and the Turkish governor, Izzet Pascha (Bernhard Adler), who picks and chooses among Western and Islamic customs as he pleases, including (for example) joyfully drinking champagne because he proclaims that it is not wine but soda water.
Second, operetta. Only if you know its standards will you see the highly amusing ways in which Suppé tweaks them. For example, the traditional “second couple,” a more-amusing counterpart to the “first couple” – lovers who eventually overcome hardships to be united – consists in this operetta of General Kantschukoff and someone who does not exist: Fatinitza. That’s right: the title character of this work does not exist – it is a nom d’amour assumed before the operetta begins by Leutnant Wladimir Samoiloff (Stephanie Houtzeel) to facilitate a liaison with the young wife of an old diplomat. And notice who plays Wladimir: a mezzo-soprano. Yes, the lead in this work is not the traditional tenor but a female in a trouser role – a highly unusual bit of casting (even the famous Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is only a bit player, not the lead). So the “man” in the second couple is a woman playing a man – who spends much of the work disguised as the nonexistent Fatinitza, thus becoming a woman playing a man disguised as a woman. This is very Shakespearean but scarcely typical of operetta.
Third, German. Fatinitza is dialogue-heavy, and much of the story advances either through discussions or through melodrama – with a speaker (often Gerhard Balluch, who skillfully juggles multiple roles) talking as music plays. The booklet with this CPO release provides only a brief and not entirely accurate plot summary in English, and no information on finding a dual-language libretto – which is scarcely easy to locate. For anyone who lacks at least a fair grounding in spoken German, most of what happens in Fatinitza will be simply unintelligible.
Yet many operetta lovers will still want to own this beautifully sung and very well recorded performance, in which Vinzenz Praxmarer made his debut as an opera conductor (he was 27 when the recording was made last year). The work is, after all, a rarity, and it contains some truly delightful music. There is no overture to Fatinitza – just a brief prelude – and no big waltz (another unusual aspect of the work), although the one that does appear briefly in Act II is lovely. The most memorable tune here is a march – and Suppé, who knew a good thing when he had one, uses it repeatedly, both with words and orchestrally, and includes it in the work’s finale. There is a sly reference to Die Fledermaus, which had its triumphant première just two years before Fatinitza opened in 1876, in the love duet that opens Act II – in which Wladimir and Lydia (Zora Antonic), who have been kept apart because Lydia is the niece and ward of General Kantschukoff, affirm their feelings while in Izzet Pascha’s harem, where they have been brought after being kidnapped while Wladimir is disguised as Fatinitza. (The stage business in this operetta must be great fun.) There is an amusing and still-pertinent satire of the role of the foreign correspondent in the first aria of Julian von Goltz (Christian Bauer), who is both a reporter and a go-between for the lovers – and who provides some crucial coaching in Act III. There is a kind of “confusion quartet” for Kantschukoff, Wladimir, Lydia and Julian; a funny “silver bells” sextet in the harem, in which Julian and Izzet Pascha sing along with the latter’s four wives; a complementarily sad “bells” aria with which Lydia opens Act III, which takes place after the war – when Wladimir is missing and, she fears, may be dead; and a Terzett near the end of Act III in which Suppé expertly moves from joy to a “tick-tock” rhythm to martial elements, including a repeat of part of his excellent march tune.
Fatinitza has not worn particularly well, because of its dated plot (which includes a couple of sections intended to be performed in blackface – unimaginable today) and a very complex story that simply cannot be followed if you don’t know the language. But Suppé’s music is charming, his tweaking of the conventions of his form is amusing and expertly done, and even if a large-scale revival of Fatinitza is highly unlikely, it is good to have it available on CD in a performance as fine as this one.