Regular visitors to zarzuela.net may raise an eyebrow or three to find a Hungarian operetta reviewed here on these exclusive pages! Let me admit at once that this new Naxos recording of Die Csárdásfürstin is just about the most uplifting recording to come my way in a long while. Now that may be reason enough, but it's not the point. Quite aside from its quality, there is a short dossier of special pleas which should allow Emmerich Kálmán at least a temporary Spanish visa.
For starters, his most popular success Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess) is much closer in temperament to some of the operetta-zarzuelas of its time (1915) than many other "European mainstream" music theatre pieces. Just as Budapest cuisine is spicier and less predictable than its Viennese counterpart, so its operetta is more often shot through with a deeper vein of feeling than is customary in the Austrian tradition. Franz Lehár's late Giuditta may be a masterpiece of downbeat decadence; but there's a raw edge to Kálmán's works such as this and Gräfin Maritza, an energy and directness, which places him closer in spirit than Lehár to Madrid masters such as Pablo Luna and Rafael Millán. Die Csárdásfürstin is for me one of the few operettas which can match the great 20th century zarzuelas for brilliant colour, rhythmic dynamism, variety and substance.
Nor is there much doubt that the work of this greatest of Hungarian operetta composers had a strong influence on the last generation of zarzueleros - notably Pablo Sorozábal, who would certainly have come across Die Csárdásfürstin and other Kálmán works during his German study years. He learnt several things: how to employ leitmotif flexibly as a shorthand to characterise and bind the action; how to use musical reprise to add ironic comment or intensify situation; how to structure effective finales with a mixture of old and new material, plus dialogue spoken over music; last, not least, how to use popular music to add the perspective of contemporary reality to romantic fantasy. Die Csárdásfürstin has a clever and funny libretto, but what gives a conventional plot the illusion of depth is Kálmán's score - exactly the same as could be said for the Basque composer's miraculously polished first zarzuela, Katiuska.
Zarzuela was never sui generis. It's strength lay in its ability to respond to modern mores, social and artistic, and turn those to its own ends. Anyone interested in Luna, Lleó, Millán or Sorozábal will find much here to fill out their sense of Madrid's special achievement, if only by comparison with "what was in the air" at the time. We get a virtually complete score, and although Leo Stein and Bela Jenbach's dialogue has been pruned to the bone there's enough of it to give context to Kálmán's succession of memorable numbers. And the performance is excellent. Richard Bonynge and his mainly Slovak forces play the score to the manner born, with tempi, dynamic shading and balance all discreetly managed.
It's well cast too. Australian Yvonne Kenny's tinsel tone seems immune to the passing years, and her long experience in this repertoire shows in Sylva's every perfectly sprung waltz rhythm and verbal inflection. Her Edwin is the Vienna Volksoper stalwart Michael Roider, whose repertoire includes such unlikely roles as Laca in Jenufa and Captain Vere in Billy Budd. Both he and Kenny make operatic weight tell to advantage, not least in their Act 2 waltz duet "Heller Jubel", every bit as poignant and deeply felt as it should be. The soubrette pair are well cast as light silver foil to the leading couple's gold. The comedy is nicely pointed, not too overdone for repeated listening.
A libretto can be accessed online at naxos.com, but for those unable to manage that, veteran tenor Nigel Douglas contributes a very full synopsis and illuminating introduction. He reports that audiences during the first run of Die Csárdásfürstin "left the theatre feeling better than they had when they went into it." I fancy that anyone listening to this super-bargain Naxos performance will experience precisely that. The generous orchestral fillers from other Kálmán operettas only add to the appeal of what is by any standards a thrilling set.
© Christopher Webber 2005