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It was a day for "light"... melody-laden opera/operettas:



Richard Tauber was a singer of incredible natural fluidity... perfectly suited for Viennese operettas... which is what he was most known for. I have the marvelous Dutton recording of his songs/arias from Lehár. This disc featured less well-known composers of Viennese operettas (beyond Strauss, Lehár, Flotow, and Lortzing) including Oscar Straus, Robert Stolz, Emmerich kalman, Paul Abraham, and Jaromir Weinberger.

*****



I played this... in the Jeffrey Tate recording... last night...



...and was so blown away I had to play it again. I've actually owned Karajan's recording of Hänsel und Gretel for at least 5+ years... but for whatever reason never got around to listening to it. A huge loss on my part. For an opera often described as a folk opera/fairy-tale opera/children's opera, Hänsel und Gretel could not boast of a greater pedigree. The tale upon which the opera was based was first collected and given serious literary consideration by the Brothers Grimm. The tale was related to the brothers by a certain young girl by the name of Dörtchen Wild... who would become Mrs. Wilhelm Grimm.

Engelbert Humperdinck was a precocious protégé of Richard Wagner who had spent time at the "master's" side dutifully copying Parsifal. It was his sister, Adelheid Wette, who requested that Humperdinck set to music her children's play of Hänsel und Gretel. She was so delighted with the result, that she insisted her brother expand his efforts... and compose an entire opera. Humperdinck was not immediately thrilled with the request... after all, as a sworn Wagnerian, he took a lofty view of the operatic calling. What would Wagner think!? And what chance did such an undertaking have in competition with those upstart Italian operas with all their sex and violence passed off as social commentary?

Humperdinck's sister prevailed... luckily for us... and the opera was composed and set for production at the same theater in Weimar where Wagner's Lohengrin had premiered. The Kapellmeister who accepted the opera was none other than Richard Strauss. Sensing the importance of the event, Strauss engaged the distinguished conductor of the Munich Opera, Hermann Levi (Wagner's favorite) to conduct the premier. When the singer employed to perform Gretel took ill, the premier was postponed for a week... and Levi was no longer available... so Strauss conducted the opera himself.

Hänsel und Gretel is almost a magical achievement in its seeming simplicity... its child-like joy... its folk-like melodies... and its spontaneity... in spite of the sophistication of the work: the mature, adult sub-texts, the sensuality and complexity of the orchestration... built heavily upon Wagner's Lohengrin and Parsifal with its spiritually uplifting moments of grace and benediction. Even the melodies that resonate with the honest simplicity of true folk music are largely Humperdinck's originals... masterful pastiches.

The work not only impressed Richard Strauss, it proved a smash hit. In London crowds flocked to Daily's Theater for the biggest show of the Christmas season, 1884. Gustav Mahler, then head of the Hamburg Opera, proclaimed Hänsel und Gretel to be a "masterpiece". Hänsel und Gretel holds the distinction of having been the first opera performed in its entirety on the radio in Europe (on the BBC) in 1923, and in the United States in 1931. In spite of the popularity of the work, for whatever reason it was never recorded before WWII... and after the war there was some hesitation in performing a piece in which the Witch puts children in an oven coming fresh upon the memories of Auschwitz.

Thus this performance by Herbert von Karajan, recorded in 1953, became the first recorded version of Hänsel und Gretel... and arguably the best. Karajan, in many ways, was ideally suited to the task... his great-grandfather, Theodor von Karajan had been a close friend of the Brothers Grimm. The cast was ideal... including Elisabeth Grümmer, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Joseph Metternich. In spite of Karajan's reputation as a task-master and perfectionist, he avoided spending much time in rehearsals, responding and delighting in the opera's spontaneous nature. The overture comes from the test run-through during which Karajan kept the tape recorder running having learned this tip from Thomas Beecham.

The entire experience can only be described as "delicious".:)

Interestingly enough... there was one sour note to it all. Following the release of this recording, Wieland Wagner sent a letter to the producer Walter Legge exclaiming dismay that his old friend could have been involved in recording such a "mediocre, second rate" opera... and employing such masterful performers and performing it so well. Karajan and Legge both laughed off the comment and accepted it as the finest endorsement.


*****

Following on the heels of Hänsel und Gretel seemed difficult. Surely any "heavy" or "serious" work would come of as leaden and pretentious in contrast. Thus I continued in the same vein... listening to the second operetta of this disc... the classic, Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) by Franz Lehár. There are two other fine recordings of this opera that I have... the famous version conducted by Lovro Von Maticic, and the relatively recent performance by John Eliot Gardiner. This recording, conducted by Otto Ackermann, was part of a series of recordings made by EMI after the war of classic German operettas. Many employ the same singers... as did the later Von Maticic performance. All of them are truly special.

Ackermann's Die lustige Witwe... indeed of all of his operetta recordings... are special in that he and his magnificent crew of singers... Elisabeth Schwarzkopgf, Nicolai Gedda, Erich Kunz, Emmy Loose, and Otakar Kraus... grew up with and loved this music... and after the horrors of the war it undoubtedly represented the best of a German/Austrian culture tainted by the Nazis.
 
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