November 21, 2013
(++++) UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED
Marschner: Der Vampyr. Jonas Kaufmann, Franz Hawlata, Regina Klepper, Anke Hoffmann, Markus Marquardt, Thomas Dewald, Yoo-Chang Nah; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Helmuth Froschauer. Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Offenbach: La Périchole. Sabine Brohm, Ralf Simon, Gerd Wiemer, Bernd Könnes, Marcus Günzel, Jessica Glatte, Elke Kottmair; Chor der Staatsoperette Dresden and Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
To mix a metaphor: the byways of operatic history sometimes toss up on their shores some works of quite substantial interest and value. High-quality performances of these underappreciated operas reveal so much quality that their neglect becomes difficult to understand, except perhaps in a context noting that the less-often-heard music inspired better-known works that eclipsed the earlier material. Helmuth Froschauer’s nuanced, well-balanced and thoroughly musicianly interpretation of Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828) is a perfect case in point. Marschner was so influential on Richard Wagner that Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, has distinct elements parallel to those of Marschner; and Wagner not only attended performances of Der Vampyr but also conducted the work, in 1833. Furthermore, one of the notable references in Marschner’s opera, to der bleiche Mann (the pale, or pallid, man), is reused word-for-word and with emphatic intensity by Wagner in his fourth opera, Der fliegende Holländer. Wagner noted in his autobiography that he was much more impressed by Der Vampyr than by Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), which was a longer-lasting success. Marschner’s work is based on a translation of John Polidori’s story The Vampyre (1819), and it is filled with Romantic-era fears and frights. A modern audience will be particularly interested in the way Lord Ruthven, the title character, remains alive and gains strength: rather than drinking blood to prolong his life directly, he does so in connection with a required sacrifice of brides to gain extra life for himself. Also, when injured, Lord Ruthven is revived by being brought into the moonlight – there is nothing here, except perhaps by implication, about being vulnerable to the sun. Marschner’s work invites over-the-top performances, and although it does not quite get them in Capriccio’s recording (of a performance from 1999), what it does get is considerable intensity and a musical approach that makes it clear how Marschner picked up Weber’s famous “Wolf Glen” scene from Der Freischütz (1821) and expanded it into a series of scenes that create an atmosphere of gloom and darkness that is sustained almost throughout the work. Soloists, chorus and orchestra all handle their roles admirably, with the recording’s biggest disappointment being the lack of an included libretto or a link to one online. There is an adequate scene-by-scene summary, but the full libretto would have added much to the enjoyment of a piece of operatic history that deserves a more-regular place in the repertoire because of its own qualities, not merely as the result of its considerable influence on Wagner.
The relative obscurity of Offenbach’s La Périchole is harder to understand – although the work is performed regularly in France, it is not often heard elsewhere. This is one of Offenbach’s best operettas, filled with charm and winning characterizations, with people who come alive instead of being mere containers for comedy; the libretto is tightly knit and intelligent; and the music, packed with boleros, seguidillas and galops, neatly sets the exotic scene and keeps the plot moving ahead propulsively. The story has a loose factual basis in the life of Micaëla Villegas, a Peruvian entertainer who was the mistress of Manuel de Amat y Juniet, the Viceroy of Peru from 1761 to 1776. The operetta’s title, based on a semi-affectionate, semi-derogatory term actually used by Amat in reference to Villegas, translates roughly as “the half-breed bitch,” which is surely why this particular operatic title is always given in the original language. The operetta itself should be, too, but some companies continue to perform Offenbach in translation, and the new CPO recording from Staatsoperette Dresden gives it in German – a language that does not fit Offenbach’s music and wordplay particularly well, even when the singers are as adept as they are in this 2009 performance (although, in fairness, it should be noted that the work has been given in German for many years, its first Vienna performance occurring only months after its world première in Paris). Some numbers from La Périchole are heard fairly frequently, such as the “letter song” from Act I and La Périchole’s “tipsy” aria from the same act. And Offenbach’s work is often mentioned in a footnote about Gilbert and Sullivan, since Trial by Jury was specifically written as a companion piece for a performance of this Offenbach operetta. Parts of La Périchole also found their way into the pastiche known as Gaité Parisienne. But the operetta itself is much better than the small elements of it that have been referenced and picked up here and there. Offenbach here places many of his trademark approaches, such as the singing of nonsense syllables or parts of words, in the service of genuinely interesting events and an endless succession of lovely tunes – this is one of the most purely melodious scores he ever created. The Dresden performance is somewhat hobbled by the language and the use of a newly crafted libretto – unnecessary in this work’s case, and doubly irritating because the libretto is not provided with the recording or made available online (the synopsis is adequate but not enough). Also, Ernst Theis conducts what is essentially the original 1850 version of the operetta, although he does include one of the gems created for the 1874 Vienna production, the third-act aria entitled, in French, Tu n'es pas beau, tu n'es pas riche. Also interpolated, oddly but amusingly, is the chorus of carabiniers from Les Brigands. A couple of other elements from the 1874 version are appended to the main performance – with a different cast, from 2010 – but the work would flow better with the later material incorporated. Despite these reservations, this is a first-class reading of La Périchole, thanks to fine singing and really wonderful choral and orchestral contributions. It is not at the level of, say, the 1960s performance led by Marc Soustro with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which is sung with abandon by a cast led by Maria Ewing, Neil Rosenshein and Gabriel Bacquier. But the verve and spirit of the operetta and the fine sound of CPO’s recording nevertheless make Theis’ Dresden reading of La Périchole a joy to hear – re-raising the question of why this work is not mounted far more frequently on international stages.