OPERA NEWS - Der Zigeunerbaron
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J. Strauss: Der Zigeunerbaron

DVD Button Novak, Mihanovic, Bohinec; Krasznec, Serafin, Serafin, Bankl. Seefestspieler Mörbisch orchestra and chorus, Mayrhofer. Production: Fassbaender. ORF/VL KLASSIK VLMD 018N, 140 mins., subtitled

Recordings Zigeunerbaron DVD COver 1215

THE TWO LATEST DVD offerings from Austria’s renowned Mörbisch operetta festival feature the work of celebrity directors. Both are operettas by Johann Strauss II that are frequently revived, though neither comes near the popularity of Die Fledermaus. Maximilian Schell directed the 2007 production of Wiener Blut. Strauss himself had little to do with this work; it was a pasticcio—the prototype of the jukebox musical. The work, which had its premiere in 1899, five months after Strauss’s death, had a libretto by Victor Léon and Leo Stein and utilized some of Strauss’s greatest hits—including the title song—for its score. The libretto was, and is, weak and tiresome, with an unsympathetic central character—a married, philandering Count—chasing girls against the historical backdrop of the Vienna Congress of 1814. It’s Fledermaus without the fun or the comeuppance for its duplicitous protagonist. 

No director can do much with this, but in this case Schell was lucky to have an appealing cast that threw itself wholeheartedly into the production. The stretches of dialogue between numbers in this operetta are annoyingly long, but these singers prove remarkably comfortable in the spoken scenes, and Rudolf Bibl’s conducting keeps the musical portions bubbling. On the visual side, Rolf Langenfass’s spare sets make beautiful use of the outdoor lakeside stage, and his costumes are appropriately lavish.

In the central role of the Count, Rainer Trost wields his tenor fluidly and renders the character more palatable by injecting an underlying sense of remorse. As his wife, Noëmi Nadelmann is sophisticated and voluptuous, her soprano pleasing except for the uppermost notes, where a wobble creeps in. Margareta Klobucar sings limpidly and looks regal as the Count’s possessive mistress Franziska, and Renée Schüttengruber is amusing as a shopgirl that the Count has his eye on. Harald Serafin makes the most of the part of meddlesome Prime Minister of Reuss-Schleiz-Greiz. His son, the usually reliable Daniel Serafin, does not make a particularly strong impression in the role of the manservant Josef, despite the large amount of stage time he’s allotted. Character actor Alexander Grill is touchingly funny as Kagler, a merry-go-round operator, and he has a remarkably sweet moment with a nostalgic parlando number at the top of Act III.

Brigitte Fassbaender directed Mörbisch’s 2011 staging of Der Zigeunerbaron, an engaging production that made fine use of the festival’s huge playing area. Deploying a massive corps de ballet, she integrated striking, Broadway-style choreography by Bernhard Schneider, most memorably in a delightfully extended curtain call. Placing the action in an unspecified era that seemed to embrace the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she was well served by the set and costume designs of Rolf Langenfass, who died the following year. (Fassbaender co-created the concept for the set design with Langenfass; Armella Müller did the costumes based on Langenfass’s preliminary designs.) Fassbaender brilliantly deployed the vast Mörbisch stage and its view onto the lake, where distant scenic elements representing a ruined castle were placed. And she was blessed here with a cast that came studded with some fine performances. 

As the Gypsy who becomes a baron only in the last few minutes of the operetta, Romanian tenor Lucian Krasznec struts and swaggers with sexy abandon and sings with a limpid, clearly focused, charismatic sound. Harald Serafin uses his expert comic timing as the duplicitous but ultimately thwarted old-fogey villain Conte Carnero; his fussy second-act “Ethics Commission” number is updated here to include references to Schwarzenegger and Silvio Berlusconi and their tawdry sex scandals. His son Daniel makes the most of the short, paper-thin role of Graf Peter Homonay, working magic with his star power and his handsome baritone. Basso Wolfgang Bankl as the local pig farmer looks like he stepped out of a Georg Grosz illustration and makes the most of his comically plummy voice and dialogue delivery. Evelin Novak, as the gypsy Saffi, possesses a pretty but unremarkable soprano; Iva Mihanovic as Arsena gives a fun, hoydenish comic performance but her subpar vocalism in her musical numbers does isn’t impressive. A true star, however, is Slovenian mezzo Monika Bohinec as the Gypsy fortuneteller Czipra. Her lush, flawlessly produced mezzo is a pleasure to hear, and it boasts a surprising upper extension. Clearly having fun with her role, she steals every scene she’s in.

Manfred Mayrhofer leads the Mörbisch Festival Orchestra in a performance steeped in energetic Strauss style. This Zigeunerbaron can be recommended as one of the best in the very welcome Mörbisch series. —Eric Myers

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