June 13, 2013
(++++) OPERATIC ODDITIES
Offenbach au Menu. Le Quatuor Gastronomique (Sylvie Bertho, soprano; Marie-Thérèse Keller, mezzo-soprano; Pierre Catala, tenor; Jean-Marc Salzmann, baritone); Mary Dibbern, piano. Maguelone. $16.99.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Kashchey the Immortal. Alexander Arkhipov, Irina Zhurina, Nina Terentieva, Vladislav Verestnikov, Vladimir Matorin; Yurlov Academic Choir and Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Andrey Chistiakov. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Franz Ignaz Danzi: Der Berggeist. Colin Balzer, Daniel Ochoa, Sophie Harmsen, Sarah Wegener, Christian Immler, Tilman Lichdi, Patrick Pobeschin, Robert Buckland, Philip Niederberger, Vincent Frisch, Bernd Schmitt; Kammerchor Stuttgart and Hofkapelle Stuttgart conducted by Frieder Bernius. Carus. $18.99.
It is not difficult to move off the beaten path in the world of opera, since there are so many non-canonic works just waiting to be explored. But there are many ways to look into the less-known repertoire. A particularly clever one is in evidence on a Maguelone CD called Offenbach au Menu, which collects more than two dozen food-related ditties from Offenbach’s less-known works and presents them in the context of an imagined multi-course (and very French) supper, complete with clinking glasses, brief verbal byplay between musical courses, and a meal divided among Les Pátés, La Soupe, Les Plats, Les Desserts and Les Fruits, plus an interval here and there. The whole presentation is extremely clever, right down to the way the texts are presented: they are in a PDF file that can be opened on computer and read while the CD’s musical portion is being played elsewhere. It is a fair bet that very few listeners will be familiar with Wittington et son chat, Croquefer, Le Chanson de Fortunio, M. et Mme. Denis, Pomme d’Api or most of the other works from which these musical trifles are taken, although here and there a piece comes from a somewhat better-known operetta such as Geneviève de Brabant or La Fille du Tambour-Major. The sources do not much matter, though. What is important – to the extent that anything is important in this light and frothy production – is discovering that Offenbach really did write about food and drink of all sorts, and almost always in a forthrightly amusing way, unfettered by his famous swipes at bureaucracy and pretension. In fact, only one piece here, “L’échaudé Favart” from Madame Favart, contains a touch of Offenbachian ego-deflation, mentioning the very light, hollow cake of the title and commenting that many people in France are just like it: swollen with air and full of self-importance. The rest of the songs are filled only with typical Offenbach musical touches, such as nonsense syllables, repeated words and repeated parts of words (first “jambon,” ham, and then repeated “jam-jam-jam” and “bon-bon-bon,” for example). The gustatory topics range from cabbage soup to crèpes and include, of course, wine – and also water and milk. The singers and pianist all seem to be enjoying themselves thoroughly from start to finish, whether performing straightforwardly or slurring their words after a bit too much imbibing (in a drinking song from Le Château à Toto). Offenbach wrote about 100 stage works of all types and sizes, of which very, very few are well-known nowadays. Having the chance to encounter excerpts from a heaping helping of them in Offenbach au Menu is an experience that deserves to be called delicious.
At the opposite extreme from the light and airy Offenbach concoction is the dour one-act Rimsky-Korsakov opera, Kashchey the Immortal. The composer called this 1902 work in three tableaux an “autumnal parable” and based its libretto, which he wrote himself, on the same legend that Stravinsky would use for The Firebird a few years later. The harmonies and searching chromaticism of this opera are typical of late Rimsky-Korsakov, and there are distinct Wagnerian elements in it as well: Kashchey is sung by a tenor in a deliberately shrill, unpleasant voice like that of Wagner’s Mime, and the sword-sharpening scene of Kashchey’s daughter, Kashcheyevna, owes something to Siegfried’s sword-forging. But the straightforward fairy-tale plot of Kashchey the Immortal is clearly reflective of the old stories and legends to which Rimsky-Korsakov was always attracted: Kashchey can die only if his hard-hearted daughter sheds a tear that contains the sinister sorcerer’s death, and Kashcheyevna has never cried. But she falls in love with a knight who has come to rescue a princess held captive by Kashchey, and the princess takes pity on Kashcheyevna, who is so moved by the gesture that she cries and is turned into a weeping willow – and Kashchey dies. There is a fifth character here in addition to princess and knight, sorcerer and daughter: the Storm Knight, a sort of force of nature held captive by Kashchey and forced to do his bidding as a messenger, but at the end welcoming the sun back to Kashchey’s dark domain. Choral parts are minimal – the chorus produces a snowstorm at the end of the first tableau that is nothing like the lighthearted one in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and sings of life and love at the end of the opera, but remains offstage throughout. The orchestration is lush and effective; a number of the melodies, such as the duets of princess and knight and knight and Kashcheyevna, are as lovely as any vocal music Rimsky-Korsakov wrote; and there are a few exceptional touches, including Kashcheyevna’s sword-sharpening song and the princess’ berceuse: forced to sing a lullaby for Kashchey, she produces one that includes wishes for his death and eternal pain. The Brilliant Classics CD of the opera – a 1991 recording – is a very high-quality one and an exceptional bargain as well. The singing is quite fine, the pacing feels just right for the story, and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under Andrey Chistiakov plays admirably from start to finish. The CD’s booklet includes not only a plot summary but also an interesting discussion of public response to the opera in late Czarist times, when there was considerable ferment and violence in Russia. Listeners who want the libretto will find the words – albeit in English only – at the Brilliant Classics Web site (they are not as easy to locate as they could be, but they are there). Kashchey the Immortal is an impressive rediscovery that works equally well as fairy tale or as allegory, and contains a considerable amount of very moving music.
Der Berggeist is a rediscovery not only of a forgotten opera but also of a largely forgotten composer, Franz Ignaz Danzi (1763-1826). Danzi was a fine cellist and conductor, knew and admired Mozart, and was instrumental in promoting the music of Carl Maria von Weber. But his woodwind quintets constitute almost the only music by him that is still occasionally performed; the world première recording of Der Berggeist shows Danzi in a light not hitherto known. This CD from Carus is from a live April 2012 performance, with a few cuts apparently made so the opera would fit on a single disc (an unfortunate decision, along with Carus’ choice to provide a libretto only in German). The opera’s title refers to a well-known mountain spirit called Rubezähl, about whom both Danzi and Weber created stage works: Weber in 1805 (although his work was never performed and only three numbers from it survive) and Danzi with Der Berggeist in 1813. Danzi’s opera, determinedly Classical in musical approach, contains many elements that modern listeners will recognize as Romantic – he actually called it a Romantische Oper, by no means a common designation in 1813. The parallels and conflicts between the human and supernatural world are the core of the work, in which Rubezähl can only awaken his consort Erli from a century of magical sleep through the intercession of a pure human virgin – Anne, whose role in the Rubezähl situation understandably conflicts with her relationship with her betrothed, Heinrich. Some family conflicts on the human side contribute to the drama. The opera combines effective elements, such as the strength of the minor-key start of the opening scene, with less-successful ones, such as the rapid switch of that scene to a straightforward narration by Rubezähl; the effect, here and elsewhere, is of a work that starts and stops intermittently rather than one that progresses throughout. Nevertheless, the contrasts between the music for the humans and the gnomes over whom Rubezähl rules is frequently very well done, with the woodwind use for the human choruses brightening their passages considerably. Danzi proves adept in all the operatic forms of his time: the first act, for instance, contains a septet and a particularly impressive accompanied recitative for Anne, followed by an aria; while the second act includes two terzetts. The Stuttgart performers – soloists, chorus and orchestra – are all very fine, especially Colin Balzer as Rubezähl and Sarah Wegener as Anne. The musical is a throwback to Mozart, and clearly intentionally so, which makes it very pleasant to hear but not very distinguished, certainly in light of listeners’ retrospective knowledge of the musical developments of the early 19th century. Danzi was too conservative in Der Berggeist for the work to be more than a curiosity. But it is a very well-constructed curiosity; and it contains a few hints, although only a few, of the flowering of German Romanticism that would soon be ushered in by Weber and, after him, developed by Marschner, in a line that would lead directly to Wagner.