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LEHÁR: Paganini

spacer Stratas, Koller; Theba, Heesters, P. Kraus; Symphony Orchestra Kurt Graunke, W. Ebert. Arthaus Musik 101 592, 107 mins., subtitled

Video paganinicover 712

The plot of Franz Lehár's Paganini, launched in Vienna in 1925, has scant basis in history, except that composer/legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini served for three years in Lucca at the court of Napoleon's sister Anna Elisa and her (nominal) husband, the upgraded-from-Sicilian-count Prince Felice. The famously windy and insignificant "book," positing a scandalous affair between princess and violinist, did not impede Paganini's success in Germany in the decade following its premiere. This new DVD makes available a Unitel television film of 1973, directed by Eugen York, who had a hand in the small-screen adaptation. The sole reason for acquiring this Arthaus issue is to enjoy the sexily sung and acted performance of Teresa Stratas. (Her dialogue is overdubbed by a speaking voice nothing like her pungent, expressive soprano.)

For this project, Lehár's music — laced, of course, with heady violin solos — was "arranged" (one trembles) by Bert Grund. Any fears about the quality of the revised orchestrations are well-founded: they are trivial, cheap-sounding and full of upbeat touches; most numbers are sped up to accord with a late '60s "bubblegum" sound evoking The Lawrence Welk Show. Even the ravishing "Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden," the show's hit number, takes on a zither and other kitschy accents. Regardless, Stratas makes a charming, sonorous effect here and elsewhere. The rest is hard sledding.

For contractual reasons, the unique Lehár tenor Richard Tauber didn't create the title role in Paganini, but he ensured its popularity when he assumed the dashing part in Berlin opposite the charismatic Vera Schwarz. Greek tenor Antonio Theba, who reaches for the mantle here, probably looks more the romantic Mediterranean hero than did the pudgy, odd-looking Tauber (whose magic lay in his throat and charm of delivery). Theba is at least slim, dark-haired and mildly handsome, with hairy chest and armpits that York takes evident pains to display in some post-coital scenes perhaps inspired by Hollywood models. Though Theba manages some mixed-voice effects with evident skill, his hard, bright sound is purest Spieltenor — of the type that sings not Pedrillo but Salome's Fourth Jew. This non-stellar music requires utmost charm to bloom, and Theba's timbre yields none.

Dagmar Koller — a reigning Vienna Volksoper diva — presents Anna Elisa's rival Bella Giretti as a pouty '60s sexpot; her blowsy singing hardly proves the stuff of legend. Anna Elisa's unloved consort, Prince Felice (romancing Bella), is Johannes Heesters, the controversial Dutch operetta star said to be Hitler's favorite singer. He contributes creepy, arch pomposity, not including singing. The operetta-land names are ridiculous: Conte Carcasona, Graf Hédouville, Bartucci. The effete Marchese Pimpinelli — improbably also interested in la Giretti — is given unspectacular voicing by Peter Kraus. The choral singing is on a level with the tacky choreography. 

Paganini may be of little consequence, but it deserves better treatment than this. For Stratas fans, her Zarewitsch with Wieslaw Ochman provides more pleasure (and better Lehár music). spacer

DAVID SHENGOLD

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6