Zeller: Der Obersteiger. Santiago Bürgi, Cornelia Zink, Wolfgang-Müller Lorenz, Donna Ellen, Bernhard Berchtold, Anna Siminska, Timo Verse, Alfred Berger, Rolf Haunstein; Chor und Orchester des Musik Theater Schönbrunn conducted by Herbert Mogg. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
CPO here lavishes its best packaging in years and some top-notch production values on a nearly forgotten operetta by a no-longer-well-known 19th-century Viennese competitor of the Strauss family – and the result is an utterly delightful recording that shows, even if inadvertently, why operetta charmed so many for so long despite its manifest absurdities.
Der Obersteiger has more than its share of those. The title translates as “the overseer” or “the foreman,” but in the case of this operetta, the meaning is closer to “the mine workers’ leader.” The plot is so jam-packed with coincidence and so incoherent that the title almost does not matter; and the title character, whose name is Martin (sung here by tenor Bernhard Berchtold) is so unsympathetic and uninteresting a character that it scarcely matters when he goes from rabble rouser to anti-management and anti-royalty schemer to impoverished band director to a hurdy-gurdy man who has lost everything and sings a song about Aladdin’s lamp and a future time when a man will trade in his wife each year for a new one.
Yes, Der Obersteiger is that incoherent. It also has three mismatched but eventually properly joined couples rather than operetta’s usual two: Martin and the wholesome lacemaker Nelly (soprano Anna Siminska); mine director Zwack (tenor Wolfgang-Müller Lorenz) and his wife, Elfriede (soprano Donna Ellen), who ends up divorcing and then remarrying him; and Prince Roderich (tenor Santiago Bürgi), who works as a volunteer in the silver mine and pays everyone’s wages so they can drink and flirt all day, and Comtesse Fichtenau (soprano Cornelia Zink), who flees an arranged marriage and assumes the name of Nelly’s cousin, who happens to be Zwack’s daughter (whom he has never seen) from a premarital relationship.
To repeat: yes, it is that incoherent. But thanks to excellent singing by all the principals and the chorus, and tremendously upbeat conducting by Herbert Mogg (who seems to specialize in making obscure operettas sound just wonderful), and especially thanks to Carl Zeller’s unending flow of gorgeous melodies, the whole production is a smashing success. And it is worth pointing out one big reason: the recording includes only the music, but the enclosed booklet contains a complete and very accurate account of all the action, plus all the lyrics in both German and English – a huge plus for anyone who is coming to this work for the first time, as almost all listeners will be.
Der Obersteiger (1894) was written by Zeller (1842-1898) in an attempt to capitalize on the huge success of his one really big hit, Der Vogelhändler (“The Bird Seller,” 1891). It was written by the same librettists (Moritz West and Ludwig Held) and contains many similar plot points, although less convincingly arrayed. And it was to be Zeller’s final completed operetta – his last, Der Kellermeister, was unfinished at his death. Furthermore, Der Obersteiger was a success despite its vastly overcomplicated plot, and the CPO recording makes the reason abundantly clear. There are almost no tunes here that are not memorable, and the music flows from scene to scene and character to character so smoothly and easily that a listener is simply carried along on the tide and can safely ignore (or at least pay little heed to) the silliness of the story. The operetta contains one “big hit” that is still heard in recitals occasionally: “Wo sie war die Müllerin,” a strophic ditty that completely stops the action in the middle of the finale of Act II (much as the “prince and princess” song would do more than a decade later in Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe). But other music here is equally good: “Die Forstrat fährt auf Commission,” in which Zwack explains that the bureaucrat does his duty “from nine to one but not afterwards” (again, think of Die lustige Witwe, where Count Danilo says much the same thing); the duet “Ich wollte, dass mein Gatte wär,” in which the prince and comtesse (who by now have learned each other’s true identities) trade marital expectations; and the delicious little terzettino, “Ein Ball ist sozusagen,” in which the comtesse, Elfriede and Nelly perfectly encapsulate the way women in operettas hunt for and trap their men.
Following the plot of Der Obersteiger is not particularly easy even with the libretto and annotations, but following – and being pulled along by – its perky and playful music is not difficult at all. Zeller wrote only six operettas (or seven, counting Der Kellermeister, which was completed by Johannes Brandt), and it may be pushing things to suggest that some are hidden musical treasures. But surely, if Der Obersteiger has so much delightful music, Der Vogelhändler ought to be worth an occasional hearing. And maybe, just maybe, there are other delicious Zeller confections awaiting rediscovery as well. If CPO brings them out with as much quality as it has lavished on Der Obersteiger, they will definitely be worthy of operetta lovers’ attention and affection.