October 07, 2021


Strauss: Waldmeister. Annika Egert, Martina Bortolotti von Haderburg, and Andrea Chudak, sopranos; Dorothe Ingenfeld, contralto; Friedemann Büttner, Noah Schaul, Daniel Schliewa, Simeon Pilibosyan, and Nikolai Ivanov, tenors; Robert Davidson, bass-baritone. Sofia Philharmonic Chorus and Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $23.99 (2 CDs).

     It is helpful, when considering the operettas of Johann Strauss Jr., to remember that the Strauss family business – of music – really was a business. That is how it was structured and that is how it was run. Strauss got into operettas in the first place because there was more money to be made from theatrical productions than from the dance tunes that flowed so effortlessly from his pen (and from those of Josef and Eduard as well). Furthermore, in the sprawling and moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire, Strauss knew that appeals to various regional sounds and approaches could bring attractive financial rewards, through support from people living in those regions and through the comparative exoticism of the sounds as far as other residents of the empire were concerned. Thus, although Die Fledermaus is thoroughly Viennese (one reason for its enormous and continued popularity), and Der Zigeunerbaron is Hungarian, Jabuka is Serbian and its successor, Waldmeister, is a kind of Black Forest idyll with prominent hunting horns – grafted onto a comedy of manners that was creaky in its own time and is even creakier today.

     Once committed to theatrical work, the Strauss business needed to keep it going, and the coauthor of the Jabuka libretto, Gustav Davis, was commissioned to create Waldmeister, which he did by thoughtful reference to the elements of Die Fledermaus that had made it work so well: mistaken identity, an alcohol-fueled party and an important character speaking in not-always-perfect dialect. The last of those elements was Prince Orlofsky in the earlier work; in Waldmeister it is another “highly placed” person, a professor of botany named Erasmus Friedrich Müller – whose name means “miller” and whose repeated confusion with an actual miller is supposed to provide a considerable amount of the operetta’s fun.

     Davis got several parts of Strauss-favored stage works right, but like many operetta librettists, he over-complicated matters, creating a work whose many themes include the supposed discovery of a new form of Waldmeister (the plant known as woodruff in English), the overly strict morals of rural districts and their rulers, and the importance of brand-new technology such as photography (used here more extensively than W.S. Gilbert used the telephone in HMS Pinafore). For his part, Strauss, nearing the end of his life in this 1895 work (he died in 1899), continued to take much the same approach that he had used since his first completed operetta, Indigo und die vierzig Räuber, in 1871: he strung together a slew of wonderful dance tunes (mostly waltzes in Waldmeister) and let them carry the plot along to the extent possible.

     The result of all this, as with many Strauss operettas, is a mishmash that generally sounds wonderful but is thoroughly lacking in theatrical effectiveness. The world première recording of Waldmeister is thus in some ways very welcome and in some ways very irritating: what a waste of superb Strauss dance melodies, no matter the business impetus behind presenting them this way! To be sure, as with his other operettas, Strauss extracted music from Waldmeister for concert presentation – his works Opp. 463-468 all come from this production – but in their original stage context, the pieces seem paler than they do when heard independently of their theatrical origin.

     Make no mistake: Dario Salvi does a first-rate job with the music, and many of the soloists handle their roles with considerable skill. Among the women, Martina Bortolotti von Haderburg stands out as Pauline, a Dresden Opera singer who refuses to be scandalized by such matters as the appropriate dress to be worn when playing lawn tennis (another “modern” element of the plot). Among the men, Friedemann Büttner’s broad characterization of Professor Müller works well, and the four other tenors are all right if vocally undistinguished (with Daniel Schliewa the only disappointment: he too often sounds strained in the role of the forest steward Botho). The Sofia Philharmonic Chorus is quite fine, and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra plays the music with all the enthusiasm it requires.

     There are, though, multiple disappointments in this presentation – all the more so because Waldmeister is unlikely to be recorded again anytime soon. Naxos provides a somewhat convoluted plot summary and a link to an online version of the libretto – but the libretto is in German only, and while automated translation is available for those so inclined, it is not very good and makes the plot seem even more incoherent than it already is. Even more unfortunate, and quite difficult to understand, is the omission in this recording of so much of the opera. The fact that entire scenes are not presented may be deemed no serious matter, since so many are dialogue-only and brief – and the cutting of sections of other scenes may perhaps be justifiable on the same basis. But the failure to include complete versions of multiple arias is really inexcusable. This is an especially significant flaw because the couplets given to Professor Müller are among the most delightful portions of Waldmeister. Yet one of his arias, which should have three verses, is here heard with only two; and another that has two verses here was written to contain no fewer than five. There was certainly sufficient space on the CDs to include these and other missing elements: two discs easily handle 160 minutes of material, and these two include just 125. So the decision to omit some of the music that represents the primary pleasure of Waldmeister is a genuine disappointment.

     As for Strauss, he found that this 14th of his 15 completed operettas did reasonably well from a business standpoint, initially running for 88 performances. This was much better than his next and final completed stage work, Die Göttin der Vernunft, which had only 36 performances and brought the Strauss family operetta business to a somewhat ignominious end (Strauss so disliked the libretto for that final operetta that he tried unsuccessfully to find a way to break his commitment to do the music). Certainly the story of Waldmeister is mild and comparatively pleasant, and certainly Strauss had no problem producing music that elevates Davis’ libretto as well as complementing it. But what this new, unfortunately and unnecessarily abridged recording shows is that the longstanding opinion of Strauss as a less-than-talented decision-maker in the field of operetta libretti is accurate. Waldmeister is filled with delightful music but really has no business being revived as a theatrical production.

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