January 02, 2020


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker. Sveshnikov Boys Choir of the Moscow Choral School and State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Weber: Oberon. Clemens Kerschbaumer, Mirko Roschkowski, Dorothea Maria Marx, Grga Peroš, Marie Seidler, Dmitry Egorov, Roman Kurtz; Chor und Extrachor des Stadttheaters Giessen and Philharmonisches Orchester Giessen conducted by Michael Hofstetter. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).

Albert Lortzing: Overtures to “Der Waffenschmied,” “Die Opernprobe,” “Undine,” “Der Wildschütz,” “Hans Sachs,” “Der Weihnachtsabend,” “Zar und Zimmermann,” “Andreas Hofer,” and “Regina.” Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $12.99. 
     Stage works do not always fit easily upon the stage. The original E.T.A. Hoffman story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (1816) is fascinating and dramatic, and it lies like much of Hoffman's work on the borderline between dream and nightmare. But Tchaikovsky did not know the original, and the much-watered-down version of the story on which he based The Nutcracker is always a challenge to produce: all the action is in the first act, the second is essentially just a series of character sketches, the prima ballerina and her companion do not even get a chance to show their abilities until very near the end, and the conclusion is ambiguous at best (if not dubious). But Tchaikovsky's music is so marvelous that it almost compensates for all the flaws of the story indeed, for modern audiences, it does compensate for them, since the ballet is so often staged as a pageant for children, and the tunes provide one delight after another. Vladimir Jurowski takes a somewhat-more-serious-than-usual approach to the melodious work on a new PentaTone SACD that achieves the remarkable (if no longer unique) accomplishment of putting nearly 87 minutes of music on a single disc without loss of audio quality – another of several recent proofs that the long-accepted 80-minute disc limit is now archaic, if not obsolete. Jurowski, who offered a decidedly symphonic Swan Lake on an earlier release for the same label, heightens the drama of the first act while emphasizing the careful musical structure that Tchaikovsky brought to this part of The Nutcracker. Jurowski's tempos are carefully chosen – this remains a danceable version of the ballet, as was not entirely the case with his Swan Lake – but the focus is on dramatic contrasts, as in the strong distinction between the elements of the "Scene and Grandfather Waltz." The battle of mice and toy soldiers is delivered here with more strength than usual, and there is drama as well after the battle ends and the journey to Confitourenburg begins. The orchestra is highly responsive to Jurowski's approach, although the boys' choir sounds a bit strained from time to time. In the second act, Jurowski leads the dances with good attention to rhythm, although "Dance of the Reed Pipes" and "Mother Gigogne" are perhaps pushed just a bit too hard. The eventual pas de deux for the prince and sugar-plum fairy brings a bit of drama back to the proceedings, and the final waltz and apotheosis crown the ballet with musical strength that goes beyond the rather limp ending of the story as Tchaikovsky knew it. This is an admirable performance both for the sheer quality of the playing and for Jurowski's mostly successful attempt to make The Nutcracker more than a charming spectacle for children.

     Speaking of pageants and spectacles, Weber’s final opera, Oberon, was intended to be both – and that is a major problem in staging it, or even performing it on CD. Combine a libretto that is execrable from any traditional operatic standpoint with the fact that the words are in English (the first performance, conducted by the composer, was at Covent Garden), and the fact that Weber did not live long enough to “Germanize” either the story or the dramatic structure, and you have a work that contains some splendid music but feels somehow unfinished even though it is in fact quite complete. It is a work without recitatives: the musical numbers are interspersed with spoken words that provide most of the exposition, as was long the case in opera seria even though the form of Oberon is quite different. So what little cohesion the story has must come through via the narration. But cohesiveness is not the point here: Oberon was written to be a spectacle, incorporating a great deal of the then-current European fascination with “Turkish” music and costumes: the opera dates to 1826, two years after the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, with its Turkish march in the finale. Weber’s opera has elements of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), which is also a Singspiel, but Weber’s forward-looking harmonies and highly atmospheric chorus of spirits and aria to the sea (“Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster”) place Oberon firmly in the realm of Weber’s own Der Freischütz. On stage, Oberon can work if handled as intended: as spectacle, replete with exotic costumes and knowingly unbelievable events as manipulated by the fairy realm in the name of testing humans’ ability to overcome obstacles for the sake of true love. Playing it straight on stage, and without irony, is necessary. But this does not solve the problem of recording the opera, and a new version on Oehms, directed by Michael Hofstetter, does not quite solve it, either. This (+++) recording features mostly adequate if not outstanding singing: Dmitry Egorov as Puck is particularly good, while Mirko Roschkowski as Hüon seems a bit overmatched by Weber’s vocal demands. The choral portions are the highlight, sung assuredly and with strength and intensity. However, the whole production is given in German (in the 1829 version by Karl Gottfried Theodor Winkler, using the pseudonym Theodore Hell), and this is an arguable approach at best – and Oehms provides neither a full libretto nor a translation for the altered spoken elements, which means that Roman Kurtz’s narration is intelligible only for listeners fluent in German. A number of musical elements do stand out, including the always-wonderful overture and Ozean, du Ungeheuer as sung by Dorothea Maria Marx, who is excellent in this difficult aria but less effective elsewhere. But the performance does not quite gel musically, and while Oberon is scarcely consistent from a dramatic standpoint (and is not really intended to be), it can be a more-rewarding musical experience than it is here. This is an opera (or, perhaps more accurately, a stage work of operatic proportions) that requires considerable attentiveness to overcome its manifest shortcomings. It gets some of that much-needed attention under Hofstetter, but could have used a bit more.

     Weber’s influence on German opera was immense, even though nowadays it is only Der Freischütz that is performed with any regularity. One composer very much influenced by Weber, and in his turn very influential for a time, was Albert Lortzing (1801-1851), whose skill in devising stage works reflected, in part, his own participation in them: he was his own librettist and sometimes the creator of tenor roles in his own operas, notably as Peter Ivanov in Zar und Zimmermann, which along with Der Wildschütz is the only Lortzing opera still heard with any regularity – in Germany if rarely elsewhere. Most of Lortzing’s operas and Singspiels were comedic, and several used a then-common technique by importing some music originally written by other composers – including Weber (as well as Haydn) in Andreas Hofer, and Mozart and Schubert in Der Weihnachtsabend. Lortzing was also a conductor, and knew very well how to entice audiences into the spirit of his stage works, as is quite clear in the nine overtures performed on a (++++) Naxos CD by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. The overtures neatly encapsulate Lortzing’s melodic gifts and his ability to set up the scenes not only of his comic works but also of his occasional serious ones, including Andreas Hofer, which features calls for freedom that prevented the work from being staged during the composer’s lifetime, and Regina, also unstaged for many years because of what was deemed its too-sympathetic view of issues analogous to those of the failed Viennese rebellion of 1848. There is also considerable drama in the overture to the fairy-tale opera, Undine, drawn from the same source as an earlier opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann and a later one by Tchaikovsky. Even when the overtures begin strongly – as they often do, with flourishes or emphatic chords to call the audience to attention – most soon become lighter and flow with such charm and apparent ease that every one of them is a delight to hear and could well become a curtain-raising fixture on concert programs today. Interestingly, just as Lortzing follows in Weber’s footsteps in a number of ways, so other composers followed him: Lortzing’s Hans Sachs is about the same central character used by Wagner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Wagner was well aware of Lortzing’s 1840 opera when he began sketching Die Meistersinger in 1845; indeed, the two operas share numerous plot points. Stagings of Lortzing’s works are no longer common, but on the basis of this very-well-played recording, revivals of at least some of them are worth considering – and more-frequent hearings of these sparkling overtures are very definitely worthwhile.

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