Music of Vienna in Rome

08/01/2017

Johann Strauss II, A Viennese Night for the New Year, including Die Fledermaus (Act II) in concert form (semi-staged): Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Ciro Visco) of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Gustavo Gimeno (conductor), Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome, 5.1.2017. (JB)

Cast in Die Fledermaus Act II:
Gabriel von Eisenstein – Markus Werba
Rosalinde – Silvana Dussmann
Prince Orlofsky – Michaela Seinger
Dr Falke – Jochen Kupfer
Adele – Sofia Fomina
Frank – Massimo Simeoli
Neri Marcorè (narrator),

The Viennese like to say that they alone can play the music of Johann Strauss II. Well, there was a man on the podium tonight who might have caused them to question that view. He was getting the most extraordinary Viennese sounds from the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. And what is more he was a Spaniard by the name of Gustavo Gimeno.

Come to think of it, my own preferred recording of Die Fledermaus has neither a Viennese conductor nor a Viennese orchestra. Carlos Kleiber had the worst possible relationship ever with his father, Erich. Kleiber père, was, in fact, Viennese, and also a staid, serious, solid, committed conductor of predominantly symphonic music, who always said that one conductor in the family was more than enough. But Carlos, born in Berlin and brought up in Argentina, was also committed, though otherwise he had characteristics opposite to those of his pa: he was unbalanced, temperamental, unpredictable, passionate, eccentric and volatile. And most who knew him said he was more than a little crackers. No prizes for guessing which of the two gave the most memorable performance of Fledermaus ever. If you don’t know the answer, listen to the 1975 recording. And that was with the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. All successive references to Kleiber refer to Carlos and not to Erich in this dispatch.

Johann Strauss the younger was forty-nine when he gave Vienna its operetta masterpiece, Die Fledermaus. He had written two previous operettas, which didn’t begin to approach the excellence of his third. (Three successive operettas did manage to secure places in repertory houses.) Everything about Fledermaus is perfection: the absurdist, farcical plot, based on French vaudeville, the melodies which wing through the air as though they has written themselves, and the continuous, uninterrupted dance music, wittily orchestrated and sometimes sung.  The overture, following tradition, is based on melodies which we meet again during the staging. Kleiber begins it at breakneck speed with almost aggressive sounds. Shocking. It certainly makes you feel your champagne glass is overflowing: the players can’t get it out fast enough. Gustavo Gimeno is more circumspect. If Kleiber is in your ears, Gimeno seems to be holding back, a charming, I know but I’m not going to tell you yet feeling which prepares the audience for what is to come. That, of course, is what overtures are supposed to do. Kleiber’s bluster works for other reasons. Both conductors are mindful of yielding to the rubatos as the dance tunes make their appearance. This is the very lifeblood of the music. Without it this music is dead. The Santa Cecilia orchestra were audibly enjoying their partnership with their young Spaniard. And Gimeno got the orchestra to breath with the singers, a difficult technique to accomplish, though of course, they have also had practice of this with Antonio Pappano.

The Accademia found an admirable solution to the problem of the German spoken dialogue (The singing was mercifully in German; anything else changes the music of the masterpiece.) The well-known stage and screen actor, Neri Marcorè was a delightful narrator of the mischief, with such charming dropped-voice asides as, in case you hadn’t noticed. This invited the audience into the action. When it came to the Act II ball scene, Rome followed the tradition of guests arriving at the ball to perform for the entertainment of the others. These ‘guests’ were often the characters of the opera doubling up to deliver a favourite party piece, often divorced from the younger Strauss’s music. The transition was seamless with Marcorè’s narration.

The first interpolation number was Johann Strauss the younger’s Spanish March for orchestra. A tribute to their Spanish conductor? Frankly, if it weren’t for the castanets, it could have been from anywhere, though the orchestra were visibly having fun playing it.

Neri Marcorè said that number 2 was so well-known that he didn’t need to tell the audience what it was. Markus Werba (Eisenstein) then sang ‘Largo al factotum’, rather well, though he did trip slightly on the doppio tempo, a virtuoso flourish of high-speed Rossini wit.

Number 3 was Musetta’s Waltz song (La bohème) and a moment of glory for Silvana Dussmann (Rosalinde), who had been much less successful with the greater demands of Rosalinde’s ‘Czardas’; her low notes disappear with anything lower than middle G. Musetta’s waltz is easier, of course, and was an accomplished performance.

Offenbach is France’s leading operetta composer and at his best in comedy. His Les Contes d’ Hoffmann is a mixed bag and for No.4 interpolation, Massimo Simeoli (Frank, the jailer) had chosen from the wrong bit of the bag, with ‘Scintille diamant’ being disturbingly out of keeping with the bubbles of all the other choices.

I was happy to have a chance to hear a charming number from prolific operetta composer, Robert Stolz (1880-1975) No.5, much in the mould of Lehár. ‘Du sollst der Kaiser’ from Der favorit was engagingly and teasingly delivered by Michaela Selinger (Prince Orlofsky) with the sugary element aptly reduced.

The most impressive interpolation at the ball (No.6) was Russian coloratura soprano, Sofia Fomina’s delightful delivery of Offenbach’s mechanical doll, the brightest, most sparkling number in Les Contes d’ Hoffmann. Her laughing song of Adele had been much less secure.

The final interpolation (No.7) went to the orchestra with the Thunder and Lightning Polka. They let their hair down here, musically, though not so vulgarly as the Vienna orchestra do on New Year’s Eve. All the same, some of the audience joined in, clapping alongside the rough rhythms.

All in all, an entertaining way of the Accademia to welcome in the New Year. And above all to hear a conductor who knows what he is doing with this music.

Jack Buckley

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