May 19, 2011


Strauss: Der Carneval in Rom. Isabella Ma-Zach, Jessica Glatte, Michael Heim, Manfred Equiluz, Marcus Günzel, Bernd Könnes; Chor und Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Rossini Arias. Julia Lezhneva, soprano; Warsaw Chamber Opera Choir and Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $16.99.

     Johann Strauss Jr. did not do very well as a stage composer. He had one enormous hit, Die Fledermaus (1874), and another pretty big one, Der Zigeunerbaron (1885), but the rest of his 15 operettas never made much of an impression (a 16th one, Wiener Blut, was arranged by Adolf Müller and enjoyed modest success after Strauss’ death in 1899). Strauss’ basic problem was that he tended to write wonderful dance music, then overlay text and characters on it – in fact, that was exactly how critics described his first operetta, Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (1871). Strauss realized after Indigo that he needed more of a plot, but his predilection was still for writing about parties, gaiety and joy, as he had been doing for years (and as his father, Johann Sr., had done before him). A natural solution seemed to be setting an operetta at Carnival, that often-wild pre-Lent festival in which, in Strauss’ time, ranks were reversed, morals were loosened and a good time was had by pretty much everyone. Hence the composer’s second operetta, Der Carneval in Rome (1873) – which is no more about Carnival time in Rome than Die Fledermaus is about a bat (in other words, the titles refer to something important to the plot but not central to the action). Based on Victorien Sardou's comedy Piccolino, Strauss’ operetta’s libretto was put together by Josef Braun, Richard Genée and Maximilian Steiner (and possibly others). The librettists produced something of a comedy of manners, not satirizing the politics of the day in Offenbach’s mode but playing fast and loose with morals and marriage – although certainly not salaciously. The plot centers on artists, one of whom is the beloved of the naïve heroine and another of whom cannot really paint and therefore buys the works of others and passes them off as his own; and on a countess who has a roving eye and a husband with a jealous streak. The various characters intermingle first in the Swiss Alps and then in Rome at Carnival, until eventually true love triumphs and even the count and countess are reconciled (although perhaps only until the next handsome young man catches the latter’s eye). Strauss’ music sparkles throughout, but there are no individual arias that stand so far above the rest as to be hummed and re-sung by operagoers – a shortcoming of which Strauss was to become aware. Interestingly, it is the ensemble pieces here – especially the finales to the first two acts – that are the most effective, thanks to some genuine lyricism and a fine intermingling of the voices. Furthermore, although there is a party scene in Der Carneval in Rom, it is largely incidental to a plot point involving the attempted seduction of the countess, who is staying in the convent next door. Strauss learned a great deal from what did not go quite right in this operetta, making the party absolutely central to Die Fledermaus, his next stage work – talked and sung about in the first act, displayed in all its glory in the second, and followed to its consequences in the third. There is more plot in Der Carneval in Rom, but far more elements allowing Strauss to put his strengths on display in Die Fledermaus. Nevertheless, the Dresden State Operetta performance of Der Carneval in Rom, recorded live in 2008, is a very fine one throughout, with all the singers getting to the meat of their roles (what meat there is, anyway) and with Ernst Theis conducting with a wonderful sense of style and at a pace that, while not frenetic, never seems to flag even when the plot threatens to bog the music down. The biggest problem with this CPO release is its lack of a libretto – or, for that matter, of a summary sufficiently detailed to make it clear what the sung sections have to do with the plot (which is described in detail). Given the extreme difficulty that listeners will have in trying to find a libretto of this very rarely performed work, it is really unconscionable that CPO does not, as a minimum, make a libretto available online. Nevertheless, there is so much sheer enjoyment in Der Carneval in Rom, even given its shortcomings as a stage work, that this release is a real pleasure to have and to hear on its merits – not just because the areas in which this operetta fell short became the ones, a year later, in which Strauss was triumphant.

     Rossini was a far more successful stage composer, but not all his operas went over well (the famous failure of Guillaume Tell being the most notorious case); and even some that were initially successful did not hold up very well. Soprano Julia Lezhneva brings her pleasant, versatile voice to scenes and arias from Rossini operas both popular and less so in a new CD. There is in fact something from Guillaume Tell here: “Ils s’éloignent enfin,” the only French-language excerpt on the disc. Lezhneva also gets to show her dramatic abilities in “L’ora fatal s’apressa” from L’assedio di Corinto, the Italian version of Le siège de Corinthe, Rossini’s first French opera (and a rather tedious, drawn-out affair it is, although with a splendid overture). And her serious side also comes through in “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide. In contrast, Lezhneva sings the happy-ending “Tanti affetti” from La donna del lago, bringing a bright bel canto sound to this rarely heard work. The other pieces on the CD come from better-known Rossini operas: “Assisa a’ pie d’un salice” from Otello and two excerpts from La Cenerentola – the Sinfonia, which gives Marc Minkowski and Sinfonia Varsovia a chance to shine instrumentally, and “Della fortuna istabile…Nacqui all’affanno.” This is a pleasant enough CD, worthy of a (+++) rating, with lovely singing and very fine instrumental playing. But neither the program nor its delivery is especially innovative; and while Lezhneva’s voice is a fine one, it is not noticeably better than the voices of other modern bel canto sopranos. Fans of the singer and of Minkowski will enjoy the disc, but others will find few compelling reasons to purchase it.

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