January 29, 2015
(++++) AFFAIRS OF THE HEART
Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Marco Vassalli, Mark Hamman, Eva Schneidereit, Daniel Wagner, Astrid Kessler, Marie-Christine Haase, Tadeusz Jedras, Marcin Tlałka, Stefan Kreimer; Chor des Theaters Osnabrück and Osnabrücker Symphonieorchester conducted by Daniel Inbal. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
The most consistently tuneful of all Franz Lehár’s operettas, Der Graf von Luxemburg was the last to be completed: Lehár added the final element of the music, the third-act aria for Gräfin Stasa Kokozow, in 1937, three years after finishing his final stage work, Giuditta. The original version of Der Graf von Luxemburg dates to 1909 and was highly popular in its time, when it was the composer’s first major hit after The Merry Widow (1905). The huge continuing success of the earlier operetta has left Der Graf von Luxemburg largely in obscurity in much of the theatrical world, although it remains popular in Germany. Listeners discovering it for the first time are in for an enormous treat, because there is not a single less-than-inspired tune in the work, and it is wonderfully balanced between a serious romance and a lighthearted one that provides plenty of opportunities for amusing ditties and marvelously ear-catching dance tunes – including several of Lehár’s sensual, swooning and emotionally gripping waltzes.
There exists, believe it or not, an original-cast recording of Der Graf von Luxemburg: excerpts released by Deutsche Grammophon in 1909, conducted by the composer. For the full work in a modern recording, the very best performance dates to 1968, with Willy Mattes conducting the Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Graunke Symphony Orchestra, and a stellar cast led by a sure-voiced and emotionally involved Nicolai Gedda and including Lucia Popp, Renate Holm, Willi Brokmeier, Kurt Böhme and Gisela Litz. The new CPO performance is not at this level, but it is a fine one nevertheless, providing a chance to hear some up-and-coming singers and discover, or hear once again, just how well Der Graf von Luxemburg stands the test of time. The work actually needs little updating to appeal to a modern audience. The principal change that an enterprising modern director should make is to bring to the fore the sexually charged subtext that explains the two main characters’ motivations. This means showing René, the title character (Marco Vassalli in the new recording), as a wastrel who has not only squandered his family’s money and honor but has also indulged in a long series of meaningless affairs. The opera singer Angèle (Astrid Kessler), for her part, needs to be shown not as flighty but as world-weary after her many liaisons – thus explaining why she is focused on leaving the stage and becoming a respectable princess by marrying the much older, love-besotted Fürst (Prince) Basil Basilowitsch (Mark Hamman). This approach would fully explain why – when René and Angèle have their sham marriage so that she can attain the noble rank required for her to marry Basil after divorcing the “marriage Count” – the two suddenly become thoughtful and inward-focused, showing depths not apparent in their characters before, as they wonder whether they are allowing the süßer goldige Traum of true love to slip away forever.
The new recording, whose singers lack the vocal acting ability of those in the Mattes version, does not make this subtext clear, so the “sham marriage” changes from amusing to serious rather too abruptly. But that is a common misstep in recordings and stagings of Der Graf von Luxemburg. Another issue here is that Hamman plays Basil very broadly indeed, turning him into an oaf along the lines of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. This is a justifiable interpretation but not a particularly appealing one, since it transforms Angèle into a pure gold-digger (a role which she certainly does fill in part) and makes her plan to marry Basil seem even less upstanding than it is. On the other hand, Hamman’s approach makes for some easy laughs – at least for those who can follow the German dialogue, since CPO once again provides no libretto and only the barest, very inadequate plot synopsis.
The second couple in Der Graf von Luxemburg does not serve a parallel role to that of the first, as Camille and Valenciennes do for Danilo and Hanna in The Merry Widow. Instead, Armand (Daniel Wagner) and Juliette (Marie-Christine Haase) live a life that is more carefree (despite Juliette’s newfound longing for the respectability of marriage) and more overtly Bohemian, encapsulated by the ditty Wir bummeln durch’s Leben, was schert uns das Ziel (“We wander through life, and ‘who cares?’ is our goal”) – which is brought back at the operetta’s conclusion to send the audience home in the most festive of moods. Wagner’s voice is barely adequate for his part, but the rest of the soloists handle their music very well, if at times a trifle shakily. Eva Schneidereit, whose role as dea ex machina in the third act makes the happy conclusion possible, deserves special mention for her combination of battle-axe intensity and misplaced girlishness. The chorus and orchestra are just fine: Daniel Inbal, who emphasizes the many leitmotif uses that knit Der Graf von Luxemburg together so well, keeps the whole production moving smartly along – as, indeed, it practically does on its own because of the wealth of wonderful tunes that tumble over each other from start to finish. This is an extraordinary operetta, and although the performance here is not quite at the highest level, it serves the music very well and will be a revelation for listeners who think The Merry Widow, because of its wholly deserved enormous popularity, must perforce contain the very best musical writing of which Lehár was capable.