Johann Strauss Jr.: Eine Nacht in Venedig. Daniel Buckard, Pierre Gylbert, Johan Christensson, Erika Andersson, Anna Larsdotter Persson, Merete L. Meyer, Anna-Maria Krawe, Kristina Hansson and Henrik Holmberg, soloists; Coro Notturno and Stockholm Strauss Orchestra conducted by Mika Eichenholz. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Tchaikovsky: Two Films by Christopher Nupen—Tchaikovsky’s Women; Fate. Christopher Nupen Video. $29.99.
There is plenty to enjoy in these two new releases – if you happen to be interested in the subject matter already. Both seem intended to satisfy a subset of music lovers, and both do just that; but it would be hard to recommend either to people who do not already know and care about this material. That is a particular shame in the case of the 1883 Strauss operetta, Eine Nacht in Venedig, here thankfully performed in its original version rather than the more fully orchestrated and less authentic revision made by Erich Korngold in 1923, when musical tastes were different from those in Strauss’ time. This work has some of Strauss’ best tunes – there is scarcely a single number that is not hummable – and is full of the verve and high spirits that you would expect from a plot that revolves around multiple practical jokes whose ultimate aim is to prevent a lecherous nobleman from seducing a woman whom he knows to be the most beautiful female in Venice even though he has never seen her face (logic was rarely a component of Strauss operettas). Everything sounds delightful here, but in spite of rather than because of the performance. This is a 2002 live recording featuring performers from the University College of Opera in Stockholm, and while it may have worked well on stage, it makes for uncomfortable home listening – and not just because it is frequently interrupted for applause. The casting is nothing less than bizarre: two singers share the role of Caramello, the Duke’s barber; two share the trouser role of Senator Delaqua, on whose wife the Duke has set his sights; the same two share the role of another senator’s wife; and no fewer than three singers take the part of Caramello’s girlfriend, Annina. All the singers have adequate but scarcely outstanding vocal abilities – there are a few missed notes during runs and an occasional off-pitch leap – and they certainly bring enthusiasm to the production; but the overall effect is of a student performance, which of course is what this is. Even the orchestra is a touch ragged, although Mika Eichenholz keeps everything bubbling along pleasantly. Furthermore, the CD presentation is very unhelpful: there is a brief summary of the action, but no information on which aria or ensemble goes with what on-stage activity; and there is no libretto included or made available online. This is a real disservice to listeners – although those who are fans of Strauss will be so grateful for a recording of the original version of this operetta that they may well forgive the presentation its many inadequacies. Those problems are much less apparent in six orchestral pieces drawn from the operetta, recorded separately (in 2008) and included on the second CD. These are bright, bouncy and – because they are self-contained and do not require plot familiarity – thoroughly winning; and the applause they garner is well-earned.
The limited appeal of Christopher Nupen’s films about Tchaikovsky is of a different sort. These are very well-made movies by a top-notch creator of films about musicians, including Schubert and Sibelius. What limits their audience is not their quality but the simple fact that even classical-music lovers do not necessary want to sit still for more than two-and-a-half hours of interpretative narrative about a composer (not even when Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are part of the filmmaker’s mix). Nupen’s films are both focused on the women in Tchaikovsky’s life, although only the first is called Tchaikovsky’s Women. Although homosexual, Tchaikovsky seems to have been unusually sensitive to women, at least through a Romantic-era identification with the plight of frail and put-upon ones. From his 1864 (posthumously published) tone poem The Storm, inspired by the same source that Leoš Janáček later used as the basis for Káťa Kabanová, through Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and Odette in Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky drew inspiration and emotional connection from doomed heroines – all of whom Nupen brings into the film, to the point of suggesting that the composer’s identification with these female characters was a reason that Tchaikovsky at one point attempted suicide. But the most important woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was the rich widow Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who supported Tchaikovsky financially for 13 years – allowing him to devote himself full-time to composition and create many of his most enduring works. Von Meck is so thoroughly identified with Tchaikovsky that her general support of the arts – which also included helping pianist/composer Nikolai Rubinstein, violinist Josef Kotek, and Claude Debussy – is largely forgotten. What interests Nupen, though, is how the Tchaikovsky-von Meck relationship was intertwined with Tchaikovsky’s preoccupation with Fate. Indeed, the second of Nupen’s Tchaikovsky films is called Fate (and the composer’s Symphony No. 4, with its recurrent “Fate” motif, is dedicated to von Meck). Nupen suggests that Tchaikovsky’s focus shifted over time from identification with doomed young women to Fate as the controlling element in life; the film traces this preoccupation right through to the Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.” Tchaikovsky died nine days after that work’s first (unsuccessful) performance, bringing the theme of Fate home – at least in Nupen’s view. In truth, there is no compelling reason to separate the “identification with young women” and “Fate” themes: as early as The Storm, after all, Tchaikovsky was writing of a young woman driven to death by Fate and circumstance. But Nupen’s fine filmmaking certainly makes a good case for his interpretative views – and, for those who would like to immerse themselves in Tchaikovsky’s world (as reconstructed by a skilled moviemaker), Nupen’s films will certainly be fascinating viewing.