July 12, 2012
(++++) STRAUSS AND STRAUSS
Johann Strauss Jr.: Prinz Methusalem. Frank Ernst, Jessica Glatte, Herbert G. Adami, Elmar Andree, Gerd Wiemer, Inka Lange, Jana Frey, Andreas Sauerzapf, Frank Oberüber, Marcus Günzel, Hans-Jürgen Wiese; Chor under Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 22. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $16.99.
For a fuller appreciation of just how wonderful the music of the Strauss family was and is, it can be helpful to listen to some of the less-known works of both Johann the father and Johann the son. Recent revivals of such works are successfully filling out the impressions and reputations of both men, taking them far beyond the Radetzky March and Blue Danube Waltz. In the case of Strauss Jr., a multiyear project by the Staatsoperette Dresden has revived several of his less-known operettas – in fact, pretty much everything except Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron qualifies as less-known – and has led to the release of some wonderful performances of music as vivid and vivacious as anything Strauss Jr. wrote for the ballroom. The productions have also served to show why Strauss was never as successful in his stage works as in his dance music; and for that matter, the recordings have some consistently irritating elements of their own. But they are still a joy to hear, and Prinz Methusalem is the latest of them.
This is an operetta from 1877, three years after Die Fledermaus, and it is clearly influenced both by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and by Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which dates to 1867. Like Offenbach’s work, Prinz Methusalem argues the absurdity of military prowess for its own sake and includes several arias in which nonsense syllables are used instead of words (a technique also used by Rossini at times, but an integral part of Offenbach’s approach). The opera’s setting satirizes the artistic pretensions of France and military ones of Germany: in Prinz Methusalem, the nation of Trocadero has too many artists and is ruled by a king who seeks military glory, while the country of Riccarac has a massive army and is ruled by a king who loves art and wishes he had more artists in the land. The story involves an attempt to unite the kingdoms by having Princess Pulcinella of Trocadero marry Prince Methusalem of Riccarac – and the complications that ensue because the two kings insist on playing politics instead of cooperating, with the result that each foments revolution (or rumors thereof) in the other nation and, as a result, at the end the two swap kingdoms…while the prince and princess, who are genuinely in love, turn their backs on both noble houses and go off to live a simple, nonpolitical married life.
The plot is confusing and overly complex, filled with subplots, and is not very coherent; it also calls for 35 individual roles, plus chorus. Staatsoperette Dresden redid the libretto while keeping the music intact – a reasonable approach, since in operetta it is generally the spoken sections that advance the plot and the musical numbers that comment on it (often while bringing it to a halt). Unfortunately, as in CPO’s other releases from Staatsoperette Dresden, English speakers will have no idea of what is going on, because the text is not provided and is not available online. Only fluent German speakers will understand what is happening – a serious issue that CPO shows no inclination to address, which is a real shame.
The music, though, is marvelous: Prinz Methusalem is one of Strauss Jr.’s most tuneful works. The overture alone is a delight, although Ernst Theis, usually a careful and sensitive conductor, is not at his best here, unnecessarily slowing down and speeding up music that sounds far better when he conducts it at more-consistent tempos during the operetta itself. The arias and ensemble pieces within the operetta are all just wonderful, including Pulcinella’s initial Ach Papa die schönen Kleider (in which the delights of clothing are contrasted with those of politics); the ensemble Ihr lieben Zecher, whose repeated “rataplan” refrain reappears in the finale of Act II; and the chorus Steuerzahler, euer Geld, an attempt to rouse taxpayers against the machinations of the monarchy, in which a humming section seems to look forward to Carmina Burana. Speaking of looking ahead, the Act III duet for the king and queen of Riccarac is a marvelous piece, with pizzicato string accompaniment and a cabaret sound that would not be out of place in The Threepenny Opera. And the same act’s stop-and-start Volkes Wille soll gescheh’n is a delight. Nor are the delights only near the end: this is the only Strauss Jr. operetta (and maybe the only one by anybody) in which the very beginning has the chorus singing woefully out of tune as it attempts to perform a piece written by a court composer to celebrate the coming nuptials of the prince and princess. The effect of that first 30 seconds or so, before the chorus literally gets it together, is hilarious. The recording is also interesting for including two bonus tracks: Strauss Jr. wrote Prinz Methusalem with the title character as a trouser role, and that is how it is performed here; but in later revivals, the prince’s role was taken by a man and transposed to baritone range, and two numbers from the opera – a wedding-night duet and the waltz duet that is used instead of the traditional celebratory chorus as the climax of Act III – are given a second time at the end of the recording in baritone-and-soprano versions. Except for the fact that English speakers, and anyone less than fluent in German, will be wholly unable to follow the action or understand what anyone is singing about, this Prinz Methusalem is a marvelous addition to the Strauss Jr. catalogue.
Speaking of bonus tracks, the latest CD in the ongoing Johann Strauss Sr. Edition has one as well – and it is one created by Strauss Sr. himself, in what may be the first such instance ever and is certainly one of the earliest. Nearly all the music on this 22nd volume of the Marco Polo series comes from the year 1847, two years before Strauss Sr.’s death and 30 years prior to Prinz Methusalem. One work here is the Martha Quadrille, based on themes from Friedrich von Flotow’s very popular opera – and Strauss Sr. provided a bonus supplement to the piece, containing alternative and equally pleasing music for its second, fifth and sixth sections. Nor is this the only curiosity here. Another is Nádor Kör, Palatinal-Tanz, a “Palatine Dance” created to celebrate the post of the Palatine, who ruled in Hungary when the king was absent. But the post of Palatine was abolished in the revolution of 1848, only months after this work was first heard in December 1847, so the piece quickly turned into a marker of a bygone time. The other works on this CD had, and still have, more staying power. Included here are one excellent march, Öesterreichischer Defiler-Marsch (“Austrian March-Past”); the Beliebte Kathinka-Polka (“Popular Katinka Polka”), a dance form that was not among Strauss Sr.’s favorites; and two quadrilles (a form that he did favor) in addition to the one based on Flotow’s opera: Beliebte Quadrille nach Motiven aus Auber’s Oper ‘Des Teufels Antheil’ (“Popular Quadrille on Themes from Auber’s Opera ‘The Devil’s Due’”) and Schäfer-Quadrille (“Shepherds’ Quadrille”). The five remaining tracks offer some of Strauss Sr.’s many very fine waltzes: Die Schwalben (“The Swallows”), Marien-Walzer (“Mary Waltzes”), Feldbleamel’n (“Meadow Flowers,” a title given in Upper Austrian dialect to a work written in Ländler style; Die Adepten (“The Initiates”); and Tanz-Signale (“Dance-Signals”). Played by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina with its usual skill, and conducted by Christian Pollack with his usual enthusiasm, the works help paint an ever-clearer picture of Strauss Sr. as a highly creative composer, skilled with thematic creation and variety, clever with orchestration, and always focused both on the danceability of his works and on the specific occasions for which he wrote them. The increasing availability of music by both Strauss Sr. and Strauss Jr. is making it much easier to have a full appreciation of father and son, who were rivals in the last years of Strauss Sr.’s life but who, so many years later, turn out to have very different but highly complementary – and equally enjoyable – compositional skills.