September 22, 2016
(+++) SEVERAL ENDINGS IN ONE
Lehár: Giuditta. Christiane Libor, Laura Scherwitzl, Nikolai Schukoff, Ralf Simon, Mauro Peter, Christian Eberl, Rupert Bergmann; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Giuditta was Franz Lehár’s final and favorite stage work. He would live another 14 years after its première in 1934, but aside from a few additions he made in 1937 to Der Graf von Luxemburg, he would create no further operas, or opera/operetta blends, which is what his later works had become. Giuditta was a success when first staged – ratcheting up more performances, at inflated ticket prices, than Richard Strauss’ Arabella in the same season and the same venue. That was the Vienna State Opera, where Lehár had vainly wished since the start of his career to stage one of his works. So for the composer, this was a significant triumph. He even had the full score published – a rarity, and a measure of how good he considered Giuditta to be. Yet the work marked the end of more than Lehár’s own composing career: in a very real sense, as the Nazis consolidated power in Germany and reached into Lehár’s Austria, it marked the end of the sort of world in which Lehár’s music could be created. Soon enough, many Jewish or Jewish-ancestry musical figures associated with the non-Jewish composer would be scattered: tenor Richard Tauber and co-librettist Paul Knepler into exile, co-librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda to eventual death at Auschwitz, and non-Jewish conscientious objector Jarmila Novotná – who created the title role – into exile as well.
Sumptuously orchestrated, written at considerable length (with more than two hours of music), having a grander instrumental sound than any other work by Lehár, and with several “Tauber arias” intended to display the tenor’s much-admired voice, Giuditta has turned out to be remembered mostly for a soprano aria, the title character’s erotic waltz evocation, Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß. And it is by any account a strange work. This is not for the reasons usually cited, that it is a pale imitation of Carmen, with a titular femme fatale who woos a soldier away from duty, and that it is neither fully operatic (whether through-composed or with recitatives) nor fully an operetta. For one thing, Giuditta is not, at first, a seductress with a series of lovers: she is unhappily married, and she runs off with Octavio seeking true love, which makes her about as unlike Carmen as possible. Giuditta eventually becomes a demimondaine only after Octavio leaves her to fulfill his military duty – the opposite of what Don José does in Carmen. And while the feckless and cowardly Octavio does eventually desert the military and seek out Giuditta, his supposed passion does not even rise to the level of confronting her, much less stabbing her. It is also worth pointing out that Carmen, exactly like Giuditta, was written as a work with spoken dialogue and music – a fact listeners forget because Bizet’s opera is nowadays invariably staged with the recitatives written by Ernest Guiraud.
In addition, it is useful to note that being a demimondaine was not, in Lehár’s world, a barrier to romantic love: back in 1911, he had written Eva, in which the title character becomes worthy of her lover and of lasting happiness only after spending time in the demimonde. And her lover’s name? Octave! So the later, failed Octavio may seem like the opposite of the successful earlier Octave – except that the composer himself, trying to come to terms with the fast-changing world of the 1930s, said that the most happiness anyone can hope for is to be as resigned to life as Octavio is at the end of Giuditta, regarding all that has been good in his past as merely a fairy tale.
Worse was to come in the world after Giuditta, but this is a sufficiently depressing attitude to explain much of the neglect of Lehár’s final, generally rather dour work. Giuditta is also a very difficult piece to stage, having been designed for an opera house where sumptuous productions were the norm. And it is difficult to sing, too: the principals’ roles require more vocal heft and quality over a greater range than do most parts elsewhere in Lehár. All this explains the paucity of complete recordings of Giuditta – and the very high hopes interested listeners will have for the new one on CPO, conducted by Ulf Schirmer and using the same orchestra (with, of course, many different players) featured in the 1980 recording starring Edda Moser and Nicolai Gedda and conducted by Willi Boskovsky. With Schirmer at the helm, and Christiane Libor as Giuditta and Nikolai Schukoff singing Octavio, vocal expectations here are particularly lofty: both principals handle Wagner roles, after all, Libor as Brünnhilde and Isolde and Schukoff as Parsifal and Siegmund. Indeed, in their high-powered moments in Giuditta, both are excellent. But in between, their interest seems to flag; or perhaps Schirmer’s does, and he fails to motivate them to handle their dialogue with the same involvement and intensity they offer for their “big” set pieces. The result is a pair of distinctly uneven performances – very, very good when they are good, and very bland otherwise.
The “second couple” here – Lehár did preserve that traditional element of operetta – has less happy casting. Both Laura Scherwitzl as Anita and Ralf Simon as Pierrino are simply ordinary: their singing has no individuation, and neither does their speaking – they make no real attempt at characterization, much less charm. This is a particular problem in Giuditta because the story itself is so problematical. Giuditta’s motivation for leaving her husband is understandable, although her reasons for marrying him in the first place are never given, and he loves her enough both to defend her honor when it is impugned and then to become searingly angry when the rumors about her prove true (Rupert Bergmann does know how to emote). But Octavio is so feckless, capriciously asking Giuditta to flee with him (to Africa, no less), setting up happy housekeeping in the mode of La Traviata, then getting his marching orders, refusing to tell Giuditta, being discovered, deciding to desert for love, but being afraid of being branded a traitor and therefore not deserting, eventually deserting anyway, then being afraid to confront Giuditta, and so on, that it would take a far better actor than Schukoff to give the audience any sympathy for him. Indeed, the final scene, “some years later,” when Giuditta is a committed but unhappy demimondaine and Octavio is, of all things, a lounge pianist, comes across here as simply pathetic. Actually, one basic problem with Giuditta is that at best it offers pathos, certainly not tragedy and not even effective melodrama: not much actually happens in this work.
As for CPO’s packaging of the recording, it is simply a disgrace. There is no libretto and no offer of access to one online. There is no way for non-German speakers to follow the dialogue. The synopsis is ridiculously sketchy and outright inaccurate in several places. The whole release is so shoddy that it comes across as a throwaway, and whatever else Giuditta may be, it is not that. The best things here are the Libor and Schukoff performances of the “big” numbers; the very fine recorded sound of this live performance from 2012; and the excellent orchestral playing throughout – if only the singers had consistently delivered at this level! For all those reasons, this Giuditta is very much worth having for fans of Lehár – many of whom may be unfamiliar with it, so thoroughly has it sunk into obscurity. But Giuditta does not here receive what it has never gotten and still deserves: a recording offering a really first-rate, truly operatic performance delivered with the intensity of, say, a particularly compelling Carmen.