September 17, 2009


Edward German: Tom Jones. Marianne Hellgren Staykov, Richard Morrison, Heather Shipp, Donald Maxwell, Simon Butteriss, Richard Suart, Gaynor Keeble, Giles Davies, Paul Carey Jones, Ashley Bremner; National Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Russell Hulme. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Friederike. Kristiane Kaiser, Sylvia Schwartz, Klaus Florian Vogt, Daniel Behle; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     The middle and late 19th century were operetta’s golden age. Gilbert and Sullivan regaled British audiences with topsy-turvy plots and sly parodies of grand opera. Jacques Offenbach ruled in France and was perhaps the greatest practitioner of the operetta form anywhere. Franz von Suppé brought the Offenbach style to Vienna, where the homegrown approach of Johann Strauss, Jr., flourished as well. But by century’s end, operetta had become rather tired – and was decades away from its later transformation into the modern musical. It was primarily the works of Franz Lehár and a handful of other composers (such as Emmerich Kálmán and Karl Michael Ziehrer) that kept the form going in the 20th century. But different composers took it in very different directions, as these new recordings of two less-known works show.

     Edward German (1862-1936) provides a direct link to the Gilbert and Sullivan lineage: Sullivan himself once said that only German could succeed him at the height of success in operetta. In fact, German completed Sullivan’s final operetta, The Emerald Isle, with libretto by Basil Hood, after Sullivan died in 1900; and a few years later, Gilbert approached German to write an operetta based on Gilbert’s The Wicked World – which eventually became the unsuccessful Fallen Fairies (1909), the last stage work by either Gilbert (who died in 1911) or German himself. In his more successful productions, German often attempted to take British operetta into a more avowedly nationalistic realm, not only through his best-known work, Merrie England (1902), but also through A Princess of Kensington and other pieces. Yet his most accomplished work, even if not his most famous, may well be Tom Jones (1907), which has a quintessentially British source (Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel) but a “love eventually conquers all” theme that transcends both time and place. The workmanlike libretto by Alexander Thompson and Robert Courtneidge follows a simplified version of Fielding’s plot (although not its eroticism) rather closely, as the foundling Tom and squire’s daughter Sophia fall in love, are separated by issues of class and circumstance, and are eventually united. David Russell Hulme conducts the National Festival Orchestra and Chorus with a strong hand and considerable attention to the nuances of German’s music – which is better than the libretto. The Morris Dance, Jig and Gavotte, all imitative of old musical styles, are particularly attractive. And the soloists handle their parts with charm and a certain level of appropriate coyness. Marianne Hellgren Staykov does a lovely job with Sophia’s For to-night; Heather Shipp as her maid, Honour, sounds delightful in The Green Ribbon; Simon Butteriss, as the servant Gregory, handles the West Country accents of Gurt-Uncle Jan Tappit well; and Richard Morrison as Tom sounds especially good in If Love’s Content, with emotion-laden cadences straight out of Lehár, and A Soldier’s Scarlet Coat, a number (with words by Harry Bestwick) that was added after the operetta’s first London run. It is perhaps inevitable to look for influences of Sullivan in the music, and there are some to be found: a couple of patter songs and an Act I number, Here’s a Paradox for Lovers, that resembles a madrigal of Sullivan’s type. But by and large, German’s music sounds little like Sullivan’s, and many elements of this operetta’s structure – including the very operatic finales to Acts I and II and a finely wrought chorus that opens the whole production – clearly point British operetta in new directions, although in point of fact neither German nor anyone else really took it beyond this. It is a pleasure to be able to hear this first-ever complete recording of the music of Tom Jones. Indeed, the music is more than complete: the recording contains, as a bonus, three numbers that were dropped after the original production. However, it is a shame that the dialogue – which remains under copyright until 2019 – could not be included.

     Unlike German, Lehár continued looking for new directions for operetta for decades after his greatest success, The Merry Widow (1905) – eventually creating, in 1934, a work that was neither quite operetta nor quite grand opera, Giuditta, and considering it his legacy (although audiences have never agreed). Between the early years of the century and that final work, Lehár constantly sought to expand the reach of operetta both musically and dramatically. His sad endings became as legendary as his long professional relationship with tenor Richard Tauber, for whom Lehár wrote so many of his later starring roles. In the 1920s, Lehár created three works focused on real historical figures: Paganini (first performed in 1925), about the great violinist; Der Zarewitsch (1926), loosely based on the self-imposed exile of Alexei, son of Peter the Great; and Friederike (1928), whose protagonist is none other than Goethe. The first two of these are operettas, but Lehár vigorously opposed that designation for Friederike, calling it a Singspiel – a term that harks back to such works as Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. The Singspiel is in fact the ancestor of operetta, and the word clearly connoted to Lehár something deeper and more serious than the word “operetta.” Lehár described Friederike as his most deeply felt work, and indeed it has an inward-looking quality that his previous stage creations do not. The libretto is by Fritz Löhner-Beda and Ludwig Herzer (who later wrote Das Land des Lächelns, while Löhner-Beda became coauthor of Giuditta). It uses Goethe’s own words liberally and integrates Goethe’s tale Die Neue Melusine into the story, which is essentially one in which the young Goethe finds love with Friederike but must abandon her to journey to Weimar and pursue his higher calling. Goethe’s wonderful aria, O Mädchen, mein Mädchen – written for Tauber – is a highlight of Friederike, but Friederike’s lovely and heartfelt Warum hast du mich wachgeküßt? (after which she nobly gives Goethe the freedom to leave her) is equally affecting. Ulf Schirmer and the cast in the new CPO recording of Friederike give this work the seriousness it deserves, with Klaus Florian Vogt as Goethe and Kristiane Kaiser as Friederike playing particularly well against each other. The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester handle their roles smoothly and with excellence. So do members of the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, who speak the dialogue that is so crucial in a Singspiel. Unfortunately, as in all recent CPO operetta recordings, no libretto is provided or offered online, so non-German speakers are left floundering – a particularly unfortunate circumstance when it comes to Friederike, whose dialogue is crucial. Listeners who can overlook this significant omission will find this recording an excellent one, fully in tune with Lehár’s stage of musical development and the increasingly dramatic – and sad – content of his stage productions.

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