July 11, 2013
(+++) OPERETTA IN TRANSITION
Lehár: Das Fürstenkind. Chen Reiss, Mary Mills, Matthias Klink, Ralf Simon, Theresa Holzhauser, Jörg Schörner, Marko Cilic, Mauro Peter, Christian Eberl; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Franz Lehár was not entirely sure where to go musically after the phenomenal success of Die Lustige Witwe (1905). His most-substantial stage work in the next few years, Der Mann mit den drei Frauen, was a failure, partly because of its libretto and partly because of the unreasonably high expectations that Lehár himself had created with his masterpiece. Through a series of chances and misadventures, the composer soon found himself working on three operettas simultaneously: Der Graf von Luxemburg and Zigeunerliebe, with libretti by A.M. Willner and Robert Bodanzky, and Das Fürstenkind, with libretto by Viktor Léon. Lehár always saw himself as more of an opera composer than an operetta maker, being attracted to more-serious themes than formulaic operettas traditionally handled. Realizing that his talent lay in operetta, though, he determined, over time, that there were ways to make these stage works more intense and more varied than what audiences had come to expect. Once Richard Tauber entered the picture, this led to a series of mostly serious, unhappy-ending works that strained the definition of “operetta” even though they still contained spoken dialogue that was often used to advance the story. But in the post-Witwe, pre-Tauber years, it was with Das Fürstenkind (whose première was in 1909) that Lehár tried to move in the direction that he would later follow.
CPO’s live 2010 recording led by Ulf Schirmer, a highly talented Lehár conductor who has been mounting performances of many of the composer’s less-known works, certainly shows Lehár’s ambitions and his attempts to move past Die Lustige Witwe, but it also shows that the result was, at best, a mixed bag. Das Fürstenkind is not a success. Léon’s plot, which Lehár particularly liked, is based on Edmond d’About's Le roi des montagnes, the story of a prince who doubles as a robber and uses his ransom money from travelers to fund his nation’s treasury. This double-life tale clearly has comedic possibilities, but Lehár mostly takes it seriously, at least moderately so, making the work’s focus not Hadschi Stavros (the robber prince) but the rather unfortunately named Photini, his daughter, who wants to marry American Captain Bill Harris, who in turn wants to capture the robber to prove his value as a husband. Instead of the traditional “second couple” of operetta, there is a not-quite-romance for Stavros and Mary-Ann, another American, but it comes to nothing because of their age difference.
The plot is complex, and CPO’s bare-bones presentation of the story – there is no libretto and only a very brief summary of the action – is a significant detriment for non-German speakers. Indeed, several of the dialogue sections are quite extended, and the audience’s amusement, whether at the words or the stage business, makes it even more regrettable that CPO did not try to reach out to English speakers with this release. But it is the music that will be the primary reason for listeners to seek out this operetta – and while much of it is very fine indeed (this is one of those works in which characters burst into lovely waltz tunes at the drop of a hat), its overall structure is somewhat peculiar. Das Fürstenkind is in a lengthy prelude and two acts. The finale to Act I is one of the most extended through-composed sections that Lehár ever wrote, running 23 minutes and filled with character and plot developments (the seven-line summary of the scene is nowhere close to adequate). But this complexity evaporates as the work draws to a close, with Act II having no finale at all: after Stavros and Mary-Ann realize that young and old can never be happy together, there is one of the work’s extended dialogues and then, at the very end, a melodrama rather than an aria, chorus or anything of musical significance. Das Fürstenkind does not so much end as peter out.
The performance here is top-notch, and there are a few delightful musical numbers, from a sort of mountain king’s song in which Stavros calls “hey there, a thousand times ho there,” to the several waltzes, to a robbers’ march that serves as an entr’acte, to a beautiful intermezzo called “Resignation” that encapsulates the theme of the whole operetta better and with more feeling than any of the dialogue or sung material. But the best pieces are very much in the mode of the music that Lehár had written for Die Lustige Witwe, while the material with which he looks forward to the design that he would later adopt in the Tauber years is altogether less satisfying both musically and in terms of plot. Interestingly, Zigeunerliebe, although it proved more successful than Das Fürstenkind, suffers from some similar flaws, its innovative elements being less attractive and having less staying power than its backward-looking ones. And Der Graf von Luxemburg, whose plot and characters are strikingly similar to those of Die Lustige Witwe, is by far the most successful of these three operettas, with gorgeous tunes, characters with whom it is possible to identify readily, and a moving love story featuring waltzes even more erotically charged than the “Merry Widow Waltz.” Lehár, it seems, was not yet quite ready to move into entirely new compositional territory: Das Fürstenkind is an experiment, in some ways an ambitious one, but it is not particularly satisfying either musically or dramatically – except insofar as it points in the direction in which the composer, in later years and under different circumstances, would eventually go.