Nicolai Gedda: My Favorite Operetta Heroes
Operettas by Lehár and J. Strauss. Various orchestras and conductors. No texts. Warner Classics 0825646127030 (10)
THE MOST RECORDED TENOR ever, Swedish–Russian stylistic chameleon Nicolai Gedda turned ninety this July. Warner Classics honors him in the genre of which he early demonstrated complete mastery—Viennese operetta. In Otto Ackermann’s so-called “Champagne Series” of 1950s EMI recordings—many costarring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—Gedda sounds like a sly jeune premier. The five works contained in this box set—Der Graf von Luxembourg, Das Land des Lächelns, Paganini, Der Zarewitsch and Der Zigeunerbaron—originally appeared in Europe as Electrola LP sets, a decade later. Gedda still commands an incredible dynamic range and works his trademark “smile in the voice” and ringing high notes to perfection. The tonal persona is slightly more louche, a winning, experienced seducer—a Viennese Don Draper, if you will.
Gedda dominated the reviews in the Met’s 1959 attempt to turn Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) into a hit comparable to Fledermaus. If marginally less fresh tonally here, in 1970, his tenor still provides Barinkay’s swaggering charm and ringing high notes, backed up by Franz Allers’s plush, idiomatic conducting. One understands why Rudolf Bing tried out this pleasing score; though formulaic in its peasant choruses and pseudo-Magyar musical effects, it has considerable charm and—reflecting its intended operatic origins—more substantial music than some Johann Strauss II confections. The story’s multiple concealed identities and revelations conform to the genre’s pattern. Performed with conviction and flair, though, it’s quite enjoyable. Grace Bumbry’s voice sounds luscious and sensual, but its registration doesn’t quite suit Saffi; top phrases emerge as angular, turns dutiful rather than nimble. Biserka Cvejić, a ’60s Met regular, makes an aptly hearty, chortling Czipra, but the wear in her voice shows. “Black bass” Kurt Böhme, a huge personality, unsurprisingly makes an enjoyable meal of pig farmer Zsupán; Rita Streich, then fifty, sounds precise and tonally youthful as his daughter Arsena, Saffi’s rival for Barinkay. Hermann Prey—at home in this idiom, like Gedda—makes a firm-voiced, charismatic Graf Homonay. The minor soloists all know their business.
To me, it’s always been a long step down from Johann Strauss II to Franz Lehár, but listening to four works in succession, I couldn’t help admiring the Hungarian composer’s craftsmanship, melodic invention—especially when writing for Richard Tauber, as in two of these four works—and ear, over several decades, for new developments in popular music, theater and film that he could assimilate. Der Graf von Luxemburg (1909) followed his international megahit The Merry Widow. A story of a scheming, titled playboy balancing two love interests, it has many dance rhythms and plot twists. This 1968 recording, somewhat crudely led by Willy Mattes, betrays infirm choral parts. But Gedda sounds terrific. Lucia Popp, surely the most ravishing voice on any of these sets, makes a lovely Angèle; Renate Holm is charm itself as Juliette. (Holm, like the character tenor Willi Brokmeier and mezzo Gisela Litz—both effective in several of these recordings—embodies an essential truth of operetta, transcending an “A-voice” through style and charm to perform memorably.) Böhme is in rockier voice here as an amorous Russian prince.
Paganini (1925), showing the legendary violinist’s mythical involvement with Napoleon’s sister Anna Elisa, joins delightful music—complete with violin solos—to a dullish libretto. Anneliese Rothenberger, a great artist, as Met audiences briefly witnessed, left the Wiener Staatsoper in 1972, at forty-eight; here, in 1977, she sounds sophisticated but, like Gedda, tonally less than youthful. Still, they know how to put over crowd-pleasers, including Anna Elisa’s irresistible “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden”—recently interpolated into the Met’s Merry Widow. Familiar names in idiomatic support include Olivera Miljakovic, Benno Kusche and Spieltenor Heinz Zednik, the only singer on these sets who is still active. Willi Boskovsky’s somewhat staid conducting honors mid-twentieth-century tradition. The equally ahistorical Zarewitsch (1927) conflates the era of Peter the Great and the fin-de-siècle, as a tsar’s son flees his duties with a male dancer who proves to be a cross-dressed “Sonja,” sparking romance. Gedda and Streich, both half-Russian by birth, are perfectly matched, dispensing melancholy-steeped charm. The Teutonic kitsch Scarlet Empress idea of Russia prevails: balalaikas and unaccompanied choruses evoke evenings of caviar and vodka. Mattes’s 1968 performance is a good one, with Harry Friedauer and Ursula Reichert relishing the servant pair’s comic duties.
Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles), a very popular 1929 revision of a 1923 flop called The Yellow Jacket, is strikingly and thoroughly toxic in terms of stereotypes and Western artists’ playing Chinese characters. Yet it remains popular in Central and Eastern Europe. The title refers to the supposed “inscrutable” public face adopted even when unhappy in Chinese culture—here by the handsome, admired Prince Sou-Chong. Some will prefer the originator, Tauber (or Fritz Wunderlich), but Gedda is phenomenal in this 1967 outing, alternately melting and ringing in the duets and disarming Tauberlieder, most of all the much-reprised earworm “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” Lehár deploys the usual orientalizing devices—chromaticism, plus emphasis on gongs, flutes and drums in the orchestration. In the Vienna-set Act I, Sou-Chong marries the beautiful countess Lisa (Rothenberger, who is splendid). Act II, in China, features Turandot-like bombast, plus a ghastly, nonsense-syllable-laced “point number” for Sou-Chong’s sister Mi, executed with immense charm by Holm. Mi in turn loves the European diplomat Gustl (Harry Friedauer, amusing despite a frankly C-grade instrument). Social custom forces Sou-Chong to break off the interracial marriage. This piece is better heard than seen; Mattes offers solid work here, and the cast shines. —David Shengold
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