August 22, 2019
(+++) BOTH OVERDONE AND UNDERDONE
Lehár: Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). Iurii Samoilov, Marlis Petersen, Barnaby Rea, Kateryna Kasper, Martin Mitterrutzner, Theo Lebow, Michael Porter, Gordon Bintner; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester conducted by Joana Mallwitz. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).
There really should be no apology necessary for operettas, especially ones such as Franz Lehár’s most famous, Die lustige Witwe. But modern opera companies persist in trying to find reasons that it is still all right to stage works such as this – as if, somehow, the operetta genre is less worthy of preservation than that of opera, simply because operettas are generally (but scarcely always) lighter in tone and often involve spoken dialogue rather than recitatives and…well, this is all nonsense, since there are plenty of operas that are fluffier than almost any operetta (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) and plenty of operas that are really stage plays with music and without recitatives (Carmen as Bizet originally conceived it). The notion that there is something inherently déclassé about operetta nevertheless persists, more because of the genre’s reputation for escapism and frivolity that because of any inherent lesser worth. Some operettas, like some operas, deserve to be taken at face value and staged accordingly, and Die lustige Witwe is among them. But presenters persist in looking for ways to make them somehow “more respectable” and thus allegedly more acceptable to modern audiences.
So the Frankfurt Opera’s 2018 presentation of Die lustige Witwe, preserved in a live recording on the Oehms label, treats Lehár’s work as a play within a play, a venerable approach when trying to take a “meta” view of a work and tell the audience that they and the performers are too worldly and knowledgeable to accept the piece if it is simply offered as the composer intended. CDs do not include visuals, of course, but the 16 pages of photos in the middle of the booklet included with this release show the staging clearly, including the cameras on stage supposedly shooting the whole story for a visual presentation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it is a common approach for maintaining audience distance from the characters in the original work. But why do that in Die lustige Witwe? It makes no dramatic sense: the operetta’s principal couple is as modern as can be – onetime lovers separated by circumstance and family issues, and so wounded that she marries a much older man who conveniently dies before the drama starts, while he throws himself into work, drink, and a series of meaningless affairs. And the second couple, if coached and played properly, is damaged in its own way: Camille and Valencienne have an affair despite her being married to a prominent man, but she realizes that they have no future together and he very reluctantly accepts the necessity of parting after proclaiming his deep and genuine love (which she will no longer experience) in the wonderful Wie eine Rosenknospe. Valencienne’s crucial notation on her fan, “I am a respectable woman,” is less a statement of fact than one of determination for the future and resignation to her marital fate – and that makes its importance in the operetta’s denouement all the more bittersweet.
Virtually none of this comes through in the Frankfurt production. What it offers is basically a “party piece,” which is indeed a legitimate way to stage Die lustige Witwe but which undermines its emotional heft. In this approach, the first act is built around an embassy party, the second around Hanna’s “Pontevedro party” with its celebrated Vilja song, and the third around the party that Hanna stages with the grisettes of Maxim’s so she can prove to Danilo that she truly loves him and get him to admit his feelings to her as well as himself. But take all the posing inherent to partygoing and run it through the notion of everything on stage being acted for the benefit of cameras shooting it for some future purpose, and you make Die lustige Witwe less than it can be and less than Lehár intended it to be.
What saves the production and makes this two-CD set worth hearing is the quality of the singing and orchestral playing. Iurii Samoilov as Danilo and Marlis Petersen as Hanna are vocally well-matched and handle their arias with skill (although their dialogue tends to be stilted rather than passionate). Barnaby Rea makes a suitably blustery Baron Mirko Zeta, while Kateryna Kasper is a tender Valencienne and Martin Mitterrutzner a reasonably effective Camille – although their relationship is downplayed by having their homespun wishes (Ein trautes Zimmerlein) sung by Danilo and Hanna instead. This was actually done at the operetta’s première, but then the duet was in the third act and carried a different meaning – here it is placed in the first act, as usual when sung by Camille and Valencienne, but it is given to the first couple rather than the second and is sung before Danilo’s entrance aria, which makes no sense whatsoever.
Joana Mallwitz is a conductor to watch, and hear, in this repertoire: from the first bars of Die lustige Witwe, she leads the production with heady, headlong pacing and superb attention to orchestral detail, bringing out the richness of Lehár’s scoring to a greater extent than most conductors do. She does tend to rush some of the faster music instead of giving Lehár’s wonderful melodies time to breathe their magic, but by and large, she has a strong sense of the beauties of this score. The Frankfurt musicians are absolutely top-notch, and Mallwitz keeps her expectations of them at the highest possible level – with the result that they deliver a first-class performance.
The overall CD packaging, on the other hand, is third-class. There is a 68-page booklet that includes, in addition to the portfolio of stage photos and other scattered pictures, five pages promoting other Oehms releases, and 26 pages of information on the performers, including extended listings of the accomplishments of singers whose roles are barely visible or audible in Die lustige Witwe. There is no libretto and no link to a place to find it online, and even though the dialogue here is both abridged and altered, none of it is given in the booklet (even in German, much less in translation); and, again, there is no indication of anywhere to find it online. As for the actual story, that is tossed off in a three-page summary, while the music and its innovative elements are barely discussed at all. The result is a presentation that makes the importance and continued popularity of Die lustige Witwe incomprehensible. This is a very fine performance for listeners who speak German and already know this work well, and thus will welcome a chance to hear a good cast present it, in the main, effectively. But it could have been so much more. And it should have been – both the composer and this operetta deserve better than they are given here.