Lehár: Der Zarewitsch. Alexandra Reinprecht, Christina Landshamer, Matthias Klink, Andreas Winkler; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Here is a fine performance of a late Lehár operetta that remains popular in Germany but is neglected, perhaps justly, in the rest of the world. One of the composer’s vehicles for tenor Richard Tauber, Der Zarewitsch – first performed in 1927 – is also one of his series of works loosely based on the lives of real people, including the earlier Paganini (1925) and the later Friederike (1928, about the young Goethe). The plot of Der Zarewitsch is contained, to an even greater degree than usual in Lehár, in the spoken dialogue – in fact, there are four principal singing roles and four principal spoken ones. The historical background involves Alexei, son of Peter the Great, who went into self-imposed exile to be with his mistress, but was eventually forced to return to Russia – where he was tortured into a confession, convicted of conspiring against his father, sentenced to death, and died (probably of torture-related injuries) before the sentence could be carried out.
Lehár’s librettists, Béla Jenbach and Heinz Reichert, changed the story and gave it some surprising homosexual overtones. It features a Zarewitsch (tenor Matthias Klink in this recording) who has no interest in women but who must be sexually initiated and then made to marry for reasons of state – so a lovely, charming and experienced girl named Sonja (soprano Alexandra Reinprecht) is hired to seduce him, which becomes possible only because she first meets him when disguised as a male Circassian dancer. Eventually the two do have a passionate heterosexual affair, which ends in pathos (if not tragedy) after the old Czar dies and the Zarewitsch and Sonja both realize that he must put duty above personal desire and leave his lover to assume the throne. There is also a weaker-than-usual subplot involving the Zarewitsch’s servant, Iwan (tenor Andreas Winkler), and his wife, Mascha (soprano Christina Landshamer).
The obscurity of the historical background and the necessity of understanding German to follow the plot (the CPO set summarizes the action well enough but contains no libretto) mean that Der Zarewitsch is of interest primarily for its sheer melodiousness – of which, happily, it has quite a bit. The work’s structure means that the music is all about love and loss, focusing almost entirely on the personal relationship of the Zarewitsch and Sonja, from their Act I personality pieces (Einer wird kommen for her, Allein! Wieder allein! for him), through their impassioned duet (Liebe mich, küsse mich), to their eventual forced parting. The singing is generally quite good here (although Klink’s upper register is not quite strong enough to handle Lehár’s demands); and Ulf Schirmer, who has a knowing hand with operetta, directs the performance well (this is a live recording, and the audience clearly enjoys what is happening on stage). But Der Zarewitsch, although it was important to Lehár because of his determination to move operetta beyond the bounds of light flirtatiousness that had long been its stock in trade, is not an especially effective work either as drama or as love story: it comes across as an uneasy mixture of the two, a fact highlighted by the disparity between its spoken and sung elements.
There are other “uneasy” elements to the work as well – ones that are not apparent on the CDs but that would give Der Zarewitsch extra resonance in Germany and nowhere else. Lehár’s librettists were Jewish, and their names were prominently displayed on the program at a 1943 performance of the operetta that the composer conducted and that was attended by Hitler and Goebbels – both of whom were reported to have thoroughly enjoyed it. More than 60 years after Lehár’s death, questions remain about his relationship with the Nazis, and while they take nothing away from the loveliness of his music, they do cast a shadow over the works that he performed for the regime’s highest echelons. Der Zarewitsch falls quite clearly into that category. The result is that the work has 20th-century historical resonance (and difficulties) for some, on top of the 19th-century background that the composer and librettists put into it in the first place. All this makes the operetta complex and, on some levels, fascinating. But as a work of drama, Der Zarewitsch falls short, even taking into account the beauties of many of its tunes and the skill with which Lehár always presented his later love stories as part of a broader canvas.