15 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach – PARISER LEBEN (A. Rothenberger, M. Bakker, R. Holm, A. Dallapozza; Warner Classics 825646289233)

CD REVIEW: Jacques Offenbach - PARISER LEBEN (Warner Classics 825646289233)

JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880): Pariser Leben (La vie parisienne)—Anneliese Rothenberger (Baronin Christine), Marco Bakker (Baron von Gondremark), Adolf Dallapozza (Raoul de Gardefeu), Willi Brokmeier (Bobinet), Renate Holm (Metella), Karl Kreile (Gontran), Martin Finke (Jean Frick), Klaus Hirte (Pompa di Matadores, Brasilianer), Gabriele Fuchs (Gabriele), Günter Wewel (Urbain), and Elke Schary (Pauline); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Willy Mattes, conductor [Recorded in the studios of Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany, 1 – 6 February 1982; Warner Classics Cologne Collection 825646289233; 2CD, 89:28; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​In the curious crapshoot of international opera, some of the most inexplicable losers are the prolifically melodic, often deliciously satirical opéras bouffes of Jacques Offenbach. It is sometimes argued that the objects of Offenbach’s and his librettists’ musical ridicule are too specific to be appreciated by today’s audiences, especially those outside of France, but is this not also true to some extent of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan? How many audiences in Twenty-First-Century Omaha or Osaka truly grasp the minute details of Gilbert’s lambasting of late Victorian society? At the time of its première in 1866, Offenbach’s La vie parisienne was immediately perceived by the French public as a thing apart: the first of the composer’s opéras bouffes to take aim at an undisguised contemporary subject rather than employing the thinly-veiled figures from mythology who populated earlier efforts, La vie parisienne achieved instant popularity with the famously fickle Parisians. In the foppish milieu of Second Empire Paris, it was apparently acceptable to laugh at oneself provided that the tunes were memorable and, as American listeners of a certain age remember from the repeated-ad-nauseum analyses of successful songs on American Bandstand, concerted numbers ‘had good beats and were easy to dance to.’ It is interesting to note that nearly half of the performances in the La vie parisienne discography are sung in languages other than the original French of Offenbach and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, but even in English, German, or Russian the slightly bitter essence of the lampooning of Parisian society loses none of its piquancy. The restoration of this performance to international circulation is a significant contribution to appreciation of this effervescent score and of Offenbach’s farcical erudition. Though sung auf Deutsch, enough of Offenbach’s Gallic accents remain in this performance to leave no doubt that the lives under examination are truly Pariser rather than Berliner or Wiener Leben. In truth, though, a recording as thoroughly prepared and feistily executed as this one would strut with the authentic gait of Offenbach were it sung in Samoan or Swahili: Paris is, after all, a fabulously cosmopolitan town!

The performance gets off to a ripping start with a frothy account of the Overture by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, and the high spirits of the Munich players persist throughout the performance. A beloved presence in cinema and radio studios in Stockholm, Munich, and Stuttgart, Viennese conductor Willy Mattes was experienced both in the serving of Offenbach’s delectable operatic soufflés and in the preservation of Viennese operetta traditions. This recording of Pariser Leben is essentially an intersection of those worlds, and Maestro Mattes presides with the sure hand of a man who knows his work. Offenbach’s is the sort of music that sounds far easier to execute than it actually is: give an audience tunes that they can whistle, and they are inclined to think a score simplistic, but Offenbach was a savvy, often surprisingly inventive orchestrator. There is nothing in Pariser Leben that makes unreasonable demands on the orchestra, but it is to the musicians’ credit—and also to Maestro Mattes’s—that every moment of this recording simply sounds right. Even with a unapologetically Teutonic cast, the performance bubbles with the delicate bouquet of Duval-Leroy rather than the stiffer spirit of Jägermeister. Under the direction of Gordon Kember, the singers of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks distinguish themselves with vigorous performances of the choral set pieces and the madcap finales. Under Maestro Mattes’s colloquial baton, the Bayerischen Rundfunks choristers and instrumentalists readily exchange the Isar for the Seine.

Could an enterprising Schauspieldirektor now assemble for a production of any of Offenbach’s scores a cast of the quality of the ensemble convened by Electrola for this recording of Pariser Leben, he would have a sure-fire hit on his hands. Pariser Leben is the rare piece in which there truly are no small rôles, and this is the rare recording without a weak link among the cast. As Pauline, mezzo-soprano Elke Schary shines both in her duet with Baron von Gondremark in Act Three, ‘Die Liebe schwebt gleich Rosendüften,’ and in her subsequent couplets, ‘Wem sie gefällt, die Damenwelt.’ The veteran bass and Kammersänger Günter Wewel is a paragon of comic timing as Urbain, and his performance of the wickedly ironic buffo aria in Act Three, ‘Ich bin ein Held in jedem Fache,’ is outstanding. As her Pariser Leben namesake Gabriele, soprano Gabriele Fuchs brings a lovely tone and great involvement to the duet with Frick in Act Two, ‘Nur hier herein, du mein blauäugig Kind,’ and the spicy duet with the Brasilianer in Act Five, ‘Jüngst kam ein stolzer Brasilianer.’ As her duet partners, tenor Martin Finke is splendidly droll in Frick’s couplets in Act Two, ‘Ich schneid’ bei Tisch den Braten auf,’ and baritone Klaus Hirte sings adroitly as Pompa di Matadores, the licentiously exotic ‘Brasilianer.’ Gontran’s music makes modest demands of tenor Karl Kreile, but he delivers every line given to him with appealing animation, and fellow tenor Willi Brokmeier makes much of ‘Ach Gott, wie sind die Damen so traurig,’ Bobinet’s couplets with Gardefeu in Act One. The singers rise exuberantly to the occasion of the buoyant Sextet in Act Three, ‘Kinder, mein Vertrau’n ist groß,’ and each singer is an engaged member of the ensemble regardless of the number of notes in his or her part.

A familiar participant in many productions and recordings of operetta and opera in German translation, Bolzano-born tenor Adolf Dallapozza brings his expected proficiency and professionalism to his performance as Raoul de Gardefeu. The voice was an instrument of good quality, a bit short on top but plangent of timbre, and Mr. Dallapozza is a credible romantic hero in this performance of Pariser Leben. In the trio with the Baron and Baronin in Act One, ‘Bitte nur hierher zu kommen,’ Mr. Dallapozza sings winningly, his light tone filling Offenbach’s melodic lines with ease. His dramatic instincts are complemented by the dynamic performance of Dutch baritone Marco Bakker as Baron von Gondremark. A great entertainer who continues to delight audiences in 2014, Mr. Bakker gives an account of the Baron’s couplets with Gardefeu in Act Two, ‘Diese Stadt mit ihren Reizen,’ that is remarkable for its sonorous tone and expansive humor. In his interactions with each character encountered by the Baron, Mr. Bakker’s singing ripples with amusement and suggestions of apt aristocratic arrogance. There is a very Parisian esprit in Mr. Bakker’s performance, and his portrayal of the Baron is a terrific souvenir of this fine artist.

The diamonds in the diadem of this recording of Pariser Leben are sopranos Renate Holm as Metella and Anneliese Rothenberger as Baronin Christine. Neither lady was in the first flush of youth when this performance was recorded, but they were accomplished artists with extensive experience in comic operas from both sides of the Alps. Ms. Holm no longer commanded the faculty in the extreme upper register that gave her earlier performances of parts like Adele in Johann Strauß II’s Die Fledermaus gleaming glamour, and there are no interpolated excursions above the ledger lines in her singing here. In Metella’s rondos in Acts Two and Five, ‘Sie denken, liebe Kleine, noch manchmal, wie ich meine’ and ‘Um Mitternacht beginnt heir das Leben,’ however, Ms. Holm sings with complete confidence and all the enchantment of her best work. Her colleague Ms. Rothenberger sang a wide repertory encompassing rôles as diverse as Oscar in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, Zdenka in Richard Strauss’s Arabella, and Alban Berg’s Lulu. As Baronin Christine in Pariser Leben, Ms. Rothenberger sings with technique and beauty of tone little touched by time. ‘Geblendet war mein Auge ganz von diesem Glanz,’ the Baronin’s couplets in Act Four, is dazzlingly sung, and her spellbinding performance of ‘Du reist, um dich zu amüsieren’ in Act Five is the pinnacle of the recording. In ensembles, both sopranos take Offenbach’s high lines with cajoling radiance, and the ladies’ involvement and great diction make them worthy opponents for the gentlemen in the cast and near-perfect proponents of Offenbach’s music.

To perform a work as defined by its setting as Offenbach’s La vie parisienne in anything but the original French might seem counterintuitive, but this performance, a jewel in the series of recordings made for the German-speaking market by Cologne-based Electrola, is a testament of the persuasiveness of Offenbach’s music in any language. This recording of Pariser Leben preserves the efforts of an exemplary cast having a grand time in the studio, and Warner’s unobtrusive engineering seats the listener among the principals at a bustling café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. These keen singers might say ‘Ja,’ but the listener in search of the quintessence of Offenbach is likely to be provoked by this recording to repeated exclamations of ‘Oui!’