April 25, 2013
(+++) FOR ENTHUSIASTS ONLY
Offenbach: 3 X Offenbach—based on Renato Mordo’s triptych “Dreimal Offenbach,” including “Die kleine Zauberflöte” (“Le fifre enchanté” ou “Le soldat magicien”), “Die Verlobung bei der Laterne” (“Le mariage aux lanternes”), and “Die Insel Tulipatan” (“L’ile de Tulipatan”). Alfons Holte, Karl Diekmann, Gabrielle Treskow, Eva Kasper, Ditha Sommer, Erika Wien, Sanders Schier, Fritz Ollendorff, Anni Körner; Orchester der Deutschen Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Leo Fall: The Rose of Stambul. Kimberly McCord, Alison Kelly, Erich Buchholz, Gerald Frantzen, Robert Morrissey; Chicago Folks Operetta conducted by John Frantzen. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Rediscoveries of little-known music and little-known recordings can bring enormous pleasure to the very small sampling of music lovers interested in a particular niche – sometimes a niche within a niche. Or, in the case of 3 X Offenbach, two separate niches – that of the composer’s very-little-known one-act works and that of performances conducted by Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004). Kleiber was a superb conductor and a very quirky personality even by the standards of conductors, which is saying quite a bit. His entire discography, before the rediscovery of 3 X Offenbach, amounted to 12 CDs – a real shame, since his performances attained near-legendary stature and the recordings that do survive remain in many cases at the absolute pinnacle of interpretative quality. As for Offenbach, listeners who know only a few of his works are unaware that he created nearly 100 stage pieces in such well-known forms as opera and operetta and such related forms – many of them invented by Offenbach himself – as opérette bouffe, opérette fantastique, opéra comique, opéra bouffe, opéra féerie, opéra bouffes féeries, opéra bouffon, bouffonnerie musicale, saynète, revue, and pièce d’occasion. Small wonder that Offenbach’s creativity was considered supreme for a time – and not just because Orphée aux enfers was the first full-length classical operetta. Offenbach’s early music was hamstrung by a French law, not changed until 1858, that restricted musical theater works other than grand opera to three singers and perhaps some mute characters. Even after the law changed, Offenbach created many pieces in or based on this restricted mode – and they were often quite wonderful. But they are very rarely performed nowadays – which brings us to 3 X Offenbach, in which three one-act amusements, translated into German, were turned into a full evening’s entertainment by Austrian director Renato Mordo. Kleiber conducted 3 X Offenbach in his first performance at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 1962; a performance later that year was recorded; and that performance was broadcast in July 1963 – and has now been released by Profil. However, there is more to this story: the professional recording was lost, apparently destroyed, and what is heard in remastered but genuinely execrable sound on Profil is based on two amateur recordings made of the radio broadcast – except that one recorder failed part of the way through the performance, so only the second one was available for Die Insel Tulipatan. In some ways a comedy of errors, in some ways a tragedy of lost opportunity, the recording of Kleiber’s 3 X Offenbach is a delight for anyone interested in the conductor and anyone interested in less-known Offenbach sung in German. (Actually, Offenbach was German, and his works were often performed in translation. In fact, Orphée aux enfers was first heard on Broadway in German translation, in 1861.) The performances are bright, bouncy, swift (Kleiber conducts with tremendous energy), and sometimes weightier than expected (Kleiber clearly saw Offenbach as a more-substantial composer than many deem him to be). The sound restoration must have been a Herculean task, and it is sad to have to say that the result is still poor. Modern listeners unfamiliar with tape hiss and “wow” (which occurred when audio tape stretched during recording, causing distortion on playback) will soon learn what they are from this recording and will not likely enjoy the experience. 3 X Offenbach reaches out to a very small audience, but members of the group will greet it with enthusiasm.
There is enjoyment as well in Leo Fall’s The Rose of Stambul, but here too the pleasure will reach out to a limited group – although not because of the Naxos recording, whose quality is quite good, and not because of the English-language 2011 performance by Chicago Folks Operetta, which is also very well done and in which the translation (here from German) does no harm to the work. The issue here is simply that this work by Fall (1873-1925) is not very substantial. Fall was scarcely the only composer of his time to be fascinated by the “exoticism” of life in Turkey at the time of the Ottoman Empire, which was in the process of collapse when The Rose of Stambul was first produced in 1916. No less than Sir Arthur Sullivan had used a very similar setting in his last completed stage work, The Rose of Persia (1899; libretto by Basil Hood). But while Sullivan’s work nicely balanced its exotic setting with some very Mikado-like machinations and confusions, Fall’s – with libretto by Robert Bodanzky (1879-1923) – essentially has only one very weak plot point: Kondja Gul, daughter of Kemal Pasha, is ordered by her father to marry Achmed Bey, but is in love with French poet André Lery, whom she has never met – and who turns out to be Achmed Bey’s nom de plume. The comedy, such as it is, comes from Kondja’s simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the same man. There is the usual “second couple” of operetta – Midili, one of Kondja’s companions, and Fridolin Müller, timid son of a German businessman. There is some moderately amusing business in Act III, set in “The Honeymoon Hotel” in Switzerland, where everything is eventually worked out. But other scenes, such as the wedding night in which Kondja locks Achmed out of the bedroom and flees, carry neither pathos nor much fun. And the underlying premise of The Rose of Stambul, about the confinement of women in the Ottoman realm (Stambul is another name for Istanbul) and their inability to act, think or love as they wish, is belied by what actually happens, when both Midili and Kondja leave the harem and head for Switzerland without any apparent difficulty. There are overly silly scenes for Fridolin – in one of which he dresses as a woman and sings falsetto, and in another of which he repeatedly insists that his new bride, Midili, call him “snookie.” And while there are some memorable numbers in The Rose of Stambul, including one with the neat translation, “Love filled with fire and passion unfolds in a magical way./ Love in the Viennese fashion is what we should practice today,” Fall belabors the good tunes and repeats them so often that they start to lose their charm. The singers are fine in this performance, and John Frantzen keeps the pace up and the plot moving forward. But The Rose of Stambul is just too frothy to have much staying power. In its time, it was immensely popular; now, however, it comes across as a period piece that contains some amusing moments and some pleasant music, but not enough of either to make it seem a significant rediscovery.