Carl Michael Ziehrer: Die drei Wünsche (The Three Wishes). Volker Vogel, Ariana Strahl, Donna Ellen, Valeriy Serkin, Lorena Espina, Klemens Slowioczek, Anna Siminska, Michael Heim, Alfred Berger, Cornelia Zink; Chorsolisten und Orchester der Musik Theater Schőnbrunn conducted by Herbert Mogg. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
The turn of the 20th century brought with it an interregnum in the world of Viennese operetta. Johann Strauss Jr. died in 1899; his final operetta, the pastiche Wiener Blut (which he did not arrange and for which he did not compose any new music) was mounted five months after his death. Franz Lehár was just starting out in the field: The Merry Widow would not be produced until 1905. Into this brief gap stepped a number of less-distinguished composers, including Carl Michael Ziehrer with Die drei Wünsche in 1901.
Like Wiener Blut, this is a pastiche operetta, using a variety of tunes that Ziehrer had previously composed. Ziehrer was no orchestrator – it seems that the arrangements for Die drei Wünsche were done, at least in part, by Alexander von Zemlinsky. Indeed, Ziehrer was not by temperament a composer. Stately and physically attractive, he was an early media-made star rather than the possessor of raw talent: Carl Haslinger, Johann Strauss Jr.’s publisher, deliberately set the musically untrained Ziehrer up as a Strauss rival during a dispute with his most famous composer. Ziehrer was a quick study and did become a competitor for the Strauss family. He never seriously challenged them in musical popularity, but he looked good in front of an orchestra and was by all accounts an effective conductor.
Ziehrer’s music, despite some oom-pah-pah propensities, is generally pleasant and often rather sweet. In Die drei Wünsche it is at the service of a serviceable, very bourgeois libretto by Leopold Krenn and Carl Lindau, with whom Ziehrer frequently worked. The plot turns on the three wishes of Lotti, an innkeeper’s daughter who joins a theater company, for happiness, love and wealth: Lotti is told by a gypsy fortune teller that all three wishes will come true if she confides them to a falling star; she does so; and, after suitable complications, she gets everything she has wished for. This is a slight plot even by operetta standards, but there is some charming music to propel it, including finely crafted waltzes, a multilingual Tanzlied and a lovely “audition song” (Schön Gretelein) for Lotti, a delightful ditty praising the irresistibility of soldiers to young women, and the theater director’s couplets praising to his wife (Dünn, dünn, war die Leopoldin). The mostly young performers in CPO’s recording are enthusiastic, generally light-voiced, with a fine penchant for comedy. Cornelia Zink as Lotti and Anna Siminska as Käthe, the woman in operetta’s inevitable “second couple,” are particularly bright and bouncy; Volker Vogel as Hummel, the theater director, has a fine buffo style and plays nicely against Donna Ellen as a baroness who has a theater-related secret of her own (which helps produce the happy ending). The 15-voice chorus and small orchestra perform with enthusiasm and give the operetta an intimacy and warmth that are very pleasing, and Herbert Mogg paces the music with an experienced and expert sense of balance within the orchestra and between the singers and the instruments.
Unfortunately, CPO’s presentation of this rarely heard work is simply execrable, from a sketchy and incomplete plot summary (there is no libretto; none is even offered online) to mentions of characters who do not appear in the cast list to incorrect timings given for some sections – this is amateurish sloppiness. The dialogue is more extensive in this operetta than in many others and also more important – it carries all the action forward – but non-German speakers will have no hope of understanding it and no ready access to a printed libretto or helpful Web site (this is, after all, not a commonly performed work). Those fluent in German will find the performers’ clear pronunciation and high-quality verbal acting a big plus, but anyone else will be simply unable to follow what is going on. CPO in years past did a wonderful job of producing recordings of little-known, outside-the-mainstream works such as Die drei Wünsche. But while the management of Classic Produktion Osnabrück used to place a high value on giving non-German-speaking listeners enough information to help them thoroughly enjoy unfamiliar repertoire, now CPO seems to produce everything except its CDs themselves on the cheap. That is a real shame. Ziehrer may not have been a great composer, and Die drei Wünsche may not be a great operetta, but there is a great deal of enjoyment to be found in this music – including the sense of rediscovery of a work from a less-explored time in operetta history. It would be wonderful to hear more Ziehrer – perhaps Die Landstreicher, his most successful stage work – but CPO needs to return to its previous presentation quality if it hopes to increase the interest of non-German-speaking listeners in the neglected works that the performers in Die drei Wünsche and other recent CPO releases deliver with so much enthusiasm.