February 23, 2012

(++++) OPERETTA: TO CD OR NOT TO CD?

Oscar Straus: Die Lustigen Nibelungen. Martin Gantner, Daphne Evangelatos, Gerd Grochowski, Hein Heidbüchel, Gabriele Henkel, Lisa Griffith, Josef Otten, Michael Nowak, Gudrun Volkert, Christine Mann; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Siegfried Köhler. Capriccio. $16.99.

Oscar Straus: Der Tapfere Soldat. Johannes Martin Kränzle, Caroline Stein, John Dickie, Martina Borst, Gertraud Wagner, Helmut Berger, Walter Raffeiner; Händel Collegium Köln and WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Siegfried Köhler. Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Gilbert and Sullivan: The Mikado. Richard Alexander, Kanen Breen, Mitchell Butel, Warwick Fyfe, Samuel Dundas, Tom Hamilton, Taryn Fiebig, Dominica Matthews, Annabelle Chaffey, Jacqueline Dark; Opera Australia Chorus and Orchestra Victoria conducted by Brian Castles-Onion. Opera Australia. $22.99 (2 CDs).

     In operetta, where the musical numbers tend to decorate the spoken plot rather than being germane to what is going on, the CD can be a wonderful medium for encountering less-known works whose music has charms that may long since have outlived its staging. But when operetta is well-known, and especially when a recording is of a live performance, CDs can be a hindrance to enjoyment, making listeners feel they are not in on the jokes and are being deprived of the fun that the audience had when the recording was made.

     On this basis, Oscar Straus’ operettas translate quite well to CDs. Straus is no longer very popular except in France, where the Vienna-born composer was granted citizenship after the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. But he was heir to a rich tradition and was an important part of creating a new one: that of the musical. Straus was born the same year as Lehár, 1870, and outlived him by six years, until 1954. His name was originally Strauss, but he dropped the final “s” to avoid being incorrectly thought of as part of the famous Viennese Strauss family. Yet he took advice from none other than Johann Strauss Jr., who suggested that Oscar Straus write for the stage, which would be more lucrative than producing waltzes and other dances. Straus took the advice to heart and was a successful stage composer all his life, making quite a bit of money in the process because, unlike Lehár, he never tried to deepen the form of operetta – he simply helped it change with the times, evolving into the musicals we know today. Straus was in fact a direct competitor of Lehár for a while, supposedly claiming after the 1905 success of The Merry Widow that he could do even better – and proceeding to write Ein Walzertraum (“A Waltz Dream”), which opened in 1907 and did become a major international success. But Straus started his career in operetta with a different work: Die Lustigen Nibelungen (“The Merry Nibelungs”), a 1904 sendup of all things Wagnerian that will be hopelessly abstruse for many modern listeners but remains absolutely hilarious for Wagner aficionados who retain a sense of humor about their idol. The story, updated to then-modern times, tosses about everything from social caricatures in the spirit of Offenbach to multiple musical quotations from Wagner, plus a dachshund dressed as a dragon and a plot in which the plan to kill the wealthy Siegfried is called off because there is no longer any profit in it. Underlying all the humor was a subtle, or perhaps none too subtle, condemnation of the notion of German nationalism and Prussian militarism – a fact that led to the cancellation of Die Lustigen Nibelungen just about everywhere as intense nationalistic feelings surged in the early years of the 20th century. Little of this matters today, though, in light of the music, which absolutely sparkles in a performance from 1995, led by Siegfried Köhler with bounce, verve and humor. There is wonderful contrast between the shrill and demanding Brunhilde (Gudrun Volkert) and the sweetly romantic and gentle Kriemhild (Lisa Griffith), and it is hard not to laugh out loud when Siegfried (Michael Nowak) sings Das ist Rheingold, das ist mein Gold in waltz time. The Capriccio CD includes almost all the music (one number is unaccountably omitted); and although no libretto is provided, the booklet offers enough of a plot summary to allow listeners to understand the context of the various fights, arguments, misunderstandings, plots and counterplots. Die Lustigen Nibelungen is a silly delight, a parodistic journey to mythic lands whose bright music and overall sense of bubbling fun make it worth hearing even if its original reasons for being are no longer especially relevant or important.

     Nor was Die Lustigen Nibelungen the last Straus work to satirize militarism. Taking a page from La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein by Offenbach, the greatest satirical operetta composer of them all, Straus in 1908 produced Der Tapfere Soldat (“The Brave Soldier”). In English, the operetta is usually entitled “The Chocolate Soldier” after its subtitle, Der Praliné-Soldat, so called because the hero carries chocolates rather than bullets in his cartridge belt. This work – based on Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, who hated the adaptation – features a war between Bulgaria and Serbia in which a soldier dressed in Serbian uniform (but really a Swiss mercenary) flees the conflict and intrudes into the bedroom of the daughter of a Bulgarian colonel, who falls in love with him after realizing that the supposedly brave Bulgarian soldier she thought she loved is really a boastful fool, and not overly bright. Two others women in the same household also fall in love with the “chocolate soldier,” and all three slip their photos into a dressing-gown in which they help him escape – which later leads to jealousy, misunderstandings and slapstick, until eventually everything is sorted out and the right men get to marry the right women. This is a more typical operetta plot than that of Die Lustigen Nibelungen, and it is not surprising that this work – along with Ein Walzertraum – is Straus’ best-known. The fact that it includes some truly lovely music, such as the very Lehár-like and several-times-repeated waltz, Komm, komm, Held meiner Träume, is part of its considerable charm. The Capriccio recording of Der Tapfere Soldat, also conducted by Köhler, dates to 1993 and is also an excellent one: the operetta is brimming with luscious tunes, well-made ensembles and effective duets, and all come across very well indeed in a spirited romp whose music flows with delight, even though again the recording lacks a libretto and this time has a not-very-good plot summary. These two Straus works are not at the level of The Merry Widow, whose love story seems ageless and whose music transcends its genre even while existing firmly within it; but even if Die Lustigen Nibelungen and Der Tapfere Soldat are unlikely to regain international prominence on the stage, these recordings should give them a well-deserved boost for home listeners and will hopefully keep some wonderful music alive.

     In contrast to the Straus works, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado has remained a hit ever since its debut in 1885 as the ninth of the collaborators’ 14 operettas (if you include the lost Thespis). It had the longest initial run of any Savoy opera, and its popularity shows few signs of diminishing. But that does not mean it necessarily works well on CD; and unfortunately, it comes across very poorly indeed in Opera Australia’s new two-CD set, released by the company itself. The performance, recorded live last year, gives every sign of having delighted the audience – there are plenty of laughs and plenty of applause. The singers seem to having a great time, too, adding lines here and there and doing some sort of stage business for many of the numbers. But for the listener without visual cues (which would be there on the DVD of the performance, which Opera Australia has made available as well), the laughing and playing and asides and apparent amusements simply get in the way of the music. And the music gets in its own way, too. The recording is not only offered without a libretto (although most of the words can be heard clearly enough), but also presented without dialogue, which is completely nonsensical since the live performance was clearly recorded with dialogue, and the verbal byplay is not only fun in its own right but also would likely help explain some of what the audience at the theatrical version found so amusing. This is a two-CD set with just 51 minutes on the first disc and 37 on the second – there was more than enough room for the dialogue, and omitting it under these circumstances is close to unconscionable. So is a great deal of the treatment of the music. Even if you accept the company’s removal of the usual overture in favor of one that appears to have been newly composed, using different excerpts from the songs; even if you accept the now-common practice of having Ko-Ko’s “I’ve got a little list” rewritten to refer to contemporary events; even if you accept that “A more humane Mikado” has been rewritten as well – even if you find all this acceptable, the specifics of the changes do not go down well. Ko-Ko (Mitchell Butel) has a list that combines material that is purely Australian with items having to do with the misbehavior of minor celebrities, apparently within a few days of the performance – making the whole recital quite outdated already. Does it really improve The Mikado to mention Britney Spears within it? As for the Mikado (Richard Alexander), some emendations in his song are fairly harmless (e.g., Brahms instead of Spohr), but if the extended reference to a billiard-sharp is to be kept in, including the elliptical billiard balls, then why change the words to work “sweat” into the description of the punishment? Many modern performances of The Mikado, including this one, seem determined to distance themselves as much as possible from the D’Oyly Carte originals, which had admittedly become staid and often stale by the time the company shut down in 1982. But throwing out the good parts of the tradition in order to substitute new but inferior ones scarcely seems like a worthy approach. To make matters even more frustrating, the singing here is generally quite good (although Jacqueline Dark as Katisha seems unsure whether to be genuinely menacing or somewhat sympathetic), and Orchestra Victoria gives a delightfully spirited performance under Brian Castles-Onion. Nevertheless, this release gets a rating in the (++) to (+++) range, with pluses for the orchestra and quality of the singing but significant minuses for the poorly redone vocal elements and the absence of dialogue. The Mikado has survived worse performances than this, but it would have been appreciated if Opera Australia had offered a better one to listeners who would like a modern version of the operetta on CD.

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