July 08, 2021


Lehár: Operettas from Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch—Das Land des Lächelns, Giuditta, Die lustige Witwe, Der Graf von Luxemburg, Der Zarewitsch. Mörbisch Festival Choir and Mörbisch Festival Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Bibl and Wolfdieter Maurer. Oehms. $26.99 (5 CDs).

     This is one of those good-news/bad-news releases. The good news is that it gives lovers of Franz Lehár’s marvelously tuneful operettas a way to own five of them in well-paced, nicely sung, idiomatic performances at a reasonable price. The bad news is that listeners do not really get the operettas – certainly not complete ones, since there is no dialogue, and even the music is truncated through omission of a few numbers here and there. Furthermore, this Oehms set includes nothing about the works at all – not even plot summaries, much less librettos, much less librettos with English translation. Thus, the set is really for people who already know and love these works and would like to hear how they have been performed in recent years at the world’s largest operetta festival, held in summer since 1957 at Mörbisch am See, Austria, and incorporating nearby Lake Neusiedl into the stage designs for the works performed.

     The natural beauty of the area, and the creativity used in staging the operettas, are major attractions of Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch, but they are, of course, absent when it comes to hearing the music on CDs. Therefore, the five works heard here have to stand on their own. They do so moderately well. The main thing the five-disc set shows is the consistent quality of operetta performance at this festival over time: Das Land des Lächelns was recorded in 2001, Giuditta in 2003, Die lustige Witwe in 2005, Der Graf von Luxemburg in 2006, and Der Zarewitsch in 2010. This last is the only performance conducted by Wolfdieter Maurer; Rudolf Bibl leads the others. But the transition of orchestra directors is entirely seamless – testimony to the smoothness with which matters of operetta are handled at Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch.

     Operettas by Johann Strauss Jr. have been performed more often at Mörbisch than any others – Der Zigeunerbaron alone has been given 12 times – but in all, only four Strauss works have been staged, and that includes the posthumous pastiche Wiener Blut. It is Lehár who has had the most works given at the festival – the five heard on this recording. So it is fair to say that Lehár is a mainstay of Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch, and this recording gives a good overview of the music-making there. In fact, the release is something of a “sonic souvenir” of the festival, suitable for listeners who have gone to Mörbisch and seek to retain memories of it, or have wanted to attend but have been unable to do so and would like to experience some of the festival’s flavor.

     This is not, however, a first-choice recording of the operettas themselves. Like the Singspiel from which it derives, operetta is more of a play with music than a through-composed musical experience: the plot is carried almost entirely through dialogue and stage business, with the arias and choruses tending to slow down the action if they do not stop it altogether. There are exceptions, but this is the rule – and it means that music-only versions of operettas are inherently unsatisfactory for enjoying the proceedings.

     This is true even when the singers, both soloists and chorus, are as well attuned to the style of operetta as are the ones heard on these discs. None of the Lehár works here ends up with even 80 minutes of music, and while the most-famous portions of the scores are retained and handled very well (Dein ist mein ganzes Herz from Das Land des Lächelns and the Vilja-Lied from Die lustige Witwe, for example), some unnecessary cuts are made in the presentations – whether to fit each work on a single CD or as part of the actual staging at the festival, the recording does not say. Indeed, the recording does not say much of anything: the booklet gives cast lists and timings of the numbers for each work and a brief description of Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch, and that is all.

     There is really nothing to fault in the performances, although there is little chemistry evident in the singing of the principal couples. Some arias that could be show-stoppers, such as Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß from Giuditta, which inevitably upstages the work’s two “Tauber arias,” are well-done but not exactly fiery. And the underlying sadness of the later works – Das Land des Lächelns, Giuditta, and Der Zarewitsch – is no more than superficial. The earlier, more-tuneful and more “traditionally operetta-ish” works, Die lustige Witwe and Der Graf von Luxemburg, come off with greater élan, possibly because their lightheartedness fits the Mörbisch setting better – although that is pure conjecture.

     The Mörbisch festival keeps operetta alive and lively, attracting some 200,000 visitors. And it does a good job of mixing the great works of the genre from Strauss, Lehár, Kálmán, Millöcker, Zeller and others with some genuine rarities: Nico Dostal’s Die ungarische Hochzeit, Fred Raymond’s Maske in Blau, Ralph Benatzky’s Im weißen Rößl, and Roland Baumgartner’s Sissi und Romy, among others. The well-priced Oehms Lehár package is certainly worthwhile for providing a window into Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch or, as noted, as a souvenir of the festival for listeners who have attended it. However, these readings are scarcely the most engaging way to become acquainted with these five Lehár works – they are best seen as supplements to other, more-complete versions of the operettas that include 100% of the music, as well as the dialogue that is crucial to putting the music in context and making sense of the often-convoluted plots.

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