March 12, 2009


Lehár: Die Blaue Mazur. Johanna Stojkovich and Julia Bauer, sopranos; Johan Weigel and Jan Kobow, tenors; Hans Christoph Begemann, baritone; Kammerchor der Singakademie Frankfurt and Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Strauss: Fürstin Ninetta. Tua Åberg, Elin Rombo and Henrikka Gröndahl, sopranos; Fredrik Strid and Göran Eliasson, tenors; Jesper Taub, Ola Eliasson and Samuel Jarrick, baritones; Ninetta Chorus and Stockholm Strauss Orchestra conducted by Valéria Csányi. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Franz Lehár’s first big hit, the Gold and Silver Waltz of 1902, was not intended as a demarcation between the Golden Age and Silver Age of operetta, but in retrospect, that is pretty much what it turned out to be. Lehár himself was the prime successor to the operetta mantle of Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss Jr., with other composers (notably Emmerich Kálmán) also making significant contributions to operetta in the 20th century. But except for The Merry Widow, Lehár’s operettas are underperformed today, and certainly the peculiarly titled Die Blaue Mazur (“The Blue Mazurka”) is almost completely unknown. The new CPO recording is therefore most welcome, showcasing some wonderful tunes in an unusual plot that starts with a wedding instead of ending with it. This 1920 work is a late pre-Tauber Lehár operetta – he started writing for tenor Richard Tauber with Frasquita in 1922, and his works from then on were darker and lacked happy endings. Die Blaue Mazur, though, sparkles. It is an operetta set in Poland, where (according to the libretto) it is said that a “blue mazurka,” played at dawn as the sky turns blue, is danced by a man only with the woman he wants to claim as his own forever. The plot has Count Olinski (Johan Weigel) marrying Blanka (Johanna Stojkovich) at the start, then lamenting his lost romantic freedom to his friend Adolar (Jan Kobow) at just about the same time Olinski’s ex-lover, Gretl (Julia Bauer), shows up. Blanka overhears Olinski’s concerns, Gretl stirs the pot of jealousy, Blanka flees the scene, and it takes the rest of the operetta for all misunderstandings to be sorted out and for Olinski to sweep Blanka into the blue mazurka. Dance itself is central to the operetta’s plot, and Lehár supplies an ample stream of it, from a lovely waltz song in the first scene, to a gavotte with typically beautiful Lehárian solo violin passages in the act’s second scene, to a waltz scene and the blue mazurka in Act II. There are also a march duet and a madrigal quintet. Everything is quite lovely – perhaps too lovely for a work written after the devastation of World War I (which is why Lehár did nothing like Die Blaue Mazur again). The singing is poised and heartfelt throughout the new CPO recording, and Frank Beermann keeps the action flowing smoothly and warmly. The only big disappointment here is the lack of a libretto: there is plenty of dialogue, and non-German speakers ought to have a chance to know both the spoken words and the lyrics of the arias. CPO used to be distinguished for the fine libretti it included with its recordings of less-known works. Its decision to stop issuing them is particularly unfortunate in the case of an operetta such as Die Blaue Mazur, whose libretto will be virtually impossible for interested listeners to find. A decent summary of the action is included, but it is scarcely enough.

     There is a summary of the action in the new Naxos recording of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fürstin Ninetta, too; and Naxos offers the libretto online – but only in German, which won’t help English speakers much. In this case, though, it is harder to lament the absence of the text, since this operetta’s libretto is truly execrable – and Strauss wrote the music without knowing what the text in between the numbers would be! (He later expressed disappointment, saying the spoken sections did not go well with the music.) If Die Blaue Mazur is something of an undiscovered pleasure from operetta’s Silver Age, Fürstin Ninetta is a little-known example of an inferior production of the Golden Age. This does not mean that Strauss’ music for this 1893 work is poor – much of it is bright and charming. (The best-known piece, the Neue Pizzicato Polka, was written a year before the operetta and inserted into its third act.) But the story is completely incoherent, involving (among other things) a princess who first appears dressed as a man (for reasons never explained), and who in that guise attracts female guests at a beach hotel; a hypnotist with an Italian circus who was previously an Egyptian government official but is really a Russian nobleman; an English Lord who, because of a bet, is not allowed to speak; reports of a thief and murderer attacking people on the path to Mt. Vesuvius; and more. With such an incomprehensible mishmash of a plot, it may be just as well not to know the words and to be able to focus on the Strauss tunes, which include (in addition to the well-known polka) a “hypnotizing duet,” an effective tarantella, an attractive women’s chorus and, not surprisingly, some lovely (if mostly short) waltzes – the best being a paean to polygamy. This live performance of Fürstin Ninetta is not as polished as the studio recording of Die Blaue Mazur, with the large number of soloists (four sopranos, a contralto, four tenors and three baritones) often having indistinguishable vocal tone – although Jesper Taube shows some nuance, and fine comic timing, as both Cassim Pascha and the unfortunate Lord Plato, who can only sing “hum.” Conductor Valéria Csányi does an adequate job of propelling the action, but there is a little less bounce and flair than this bit of Straussian fluff ought to have. The result is a (+++) rating for this rendition of an operetta that is good to have available on CD despite its many manifest theatrical shortcomings.

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