J Strauss II Der Zigeunerbaron Philharmonia Ackermann EMI 5675352

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)
Der Zigeunerbaron (1885)
Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Sándor Barinkay
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Saffi
Erich Kunz (baritone) – Kálmán Zsupán
Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster (mezzo) – Czipra
Hermann Prey (baritone) – Graf Homonay
Erika Köth (soprano) – Arsena
Monica Sinclair (contralto) – Mirabella
Josepf Schmidinger (tenor) – Ottokar
Philharmonia Chrous and Orchestra/Otto Ackermann
rec. 1954, Kingsway Hall, London
Currently available as Warner Classics download
EMI Classics 5675352 [2 CDs: 99]

Der Zigeunerbaron has always seemed to me to be Strauss’ most interesting and colourful work. In terms of the inventiveness and variety of the music it surpasses his more popular Die Fledermaus. In this piece Strauss and his librettist seemed to push the boundaries of what one can do in the restricted form of operetta. Strauss’ Hungarian operetta was a huge hit with the Viennese public in 1885, two years later he would try to push the limits of operetta even further with the massive flop of Simplicius (review), his most ambitious work of all. The plot of Der Zigeunerbaron is somewhat more complex than Die Fledermaus, with a Third Act that feels like too much of an afterthought, even more so than it does in Die Fledermaus. That same Third Act spawned one truly fascinating occurrence when Der Zigeunerbaron had its first production in New York in 1906. Someone had the strange idea to turn Act Three into a gala occasion (similar to the New Year’s Eve parties that have sometimes populated the second Act of Die Fledermaus, as in von Karajan’s 1960 Decca recording). In that one instance the pig breeder Zsupán returned from the war with a load of prisoners. They were bound and brought onstage to be held for ransom to the wealthy audience of New York’s 400, performing a star turn as they had raised enough cash and were released. These prisoners consisted of some of the most famous operatic stars of their day including Marcel Journet, Emma Eames, Pol Plançon, and Olive Fremstad. The bizarre experience raised a vast amount of money (some $700 000 in todays’ dollars), but after that single performance Der Zigeunerbaron would not be seen again in New York for 53 years.

This excellent version from EMI has the expert handling of producer Walter Legge written all over it. The extensive dialogue of the libretto has been condensed to the essentials to make it palatable for listening at home while conveying just enough of the complex plot of this operetta. The singers (with two exceptions) deal with their dialogue in a crisp and character-filled manner that is quite admirable when one considers how often opera singers are disappointing in the delivery of dialogue.

Ackermann understands how to put across operetta music with grace and lilt which puts him amongst the most memorable interpreters of Viennese operetta on disc. He handles the shifting rhythms of the Overture expertly, even bringing out a Hungarian flavour in the main theme for the oboe, something I have not noticed on other recordings. There is an ebb and flow to the music in Ackerman’s hands that is simply irresistible. He uses the traditional Cranz version of the score but with some cuts (for example Mirabella’s only solo). The Philharmonia Orchestra musicians are obviously engaged in everything Ackermann does and they perform this music as if they were native to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The chorus has a lot to do in this piece and they do it splendidly for Ackermann.

Nicolai Gedda’s voice had a youthful beauty in 1954 that leaves one awestruck today. He gives a wonderfully infectious reading of “Ja das alles auf ehr”, capped with an utterly secure top C (something he didn’t attempt to do in his later stereo recording with Franz Allers). Together, he and Ackermann bring a grand sweep to “Ah, sie, dah, ein herrlich Frauenbild”. He also delivers his dialogue with bravado and vividly realizes the flawed, opportunistic nature of Sándor Barinkay’s character.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s commitment to the character of the young gypsy girl, Saffi is quite riveting, forming one of her great role characterizations on disc. She not only sings the role with a balance of tenderness and bravura, but she allows hints of melancholy to infuse many of her vocal lines, which no other Saffi on disc attempts to do. She delivers bewitching accounts of her aria and her solo in the ensemble, “Hier in diesem Land… “.

Erich Kunz is the most endearing Zsupán on any of the recordings. He larks about in character achieving his music with a blend of parlando and actual singing that has an earthy Papageno-like essence. When he sings in full voice this pig breeder has a substantial mellifluous baritone as demonstrated in his Act Three song about his failed exploits during the war. If anything Kunz is even more delightful In his dialogue than he is when he is singing.

I doubt that anyone now recalls the mezzo Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster who sings Czipra. She brings voluminous amplitude, with just the hint of a catch in her voice that makes her a memorable matron of this band of gypsies. Her laughing song is sung with fleetness and charm.

Erika Köth’s Arsena possesses crystalline tone with which she traces her coloratura like a string of delicate pearls. Her voice is sufficiently contrasted with Schwarzkopf’s more creamy sounding tone so that one can easily tell them apart in the many ensembles.

Hermann Prey was only 25 when he made this recording, which I believe to be his first contribution to a complete opera set. His exciting delivery of the Recruiting Song is crowned by the youthful bravado of his upper range, as finely tempered as the sabre which Count Homonay carries around with him. The smaller roles benefit from the excellent contributions of wonderful Monica Sinclair as Mirabella (too bad her aria has been cut) and Josepf Schmidinger’s sweetly boyish sounding Ottokar. The singers on this recording deliver their own dialogue, with the exception of Monica Sinclair and Willy Ferenz who have German-speaking actors record their dialogue for them.

There are a few decent recordings of Der Zigeunerbaron still around, Ackermann’s is the one with the most sparkle amongst all of them. The stereo version of choice is the Teldec recording under Nikolaus Harnoncourt (review), which is decently cast. It is chiefly desirable for Harnoncourt’s effort to incorporate all the music which had been left out of, or altered from, Strauss’ manuscript score in the Cranz performing edition. That recording provides nearly an hour of extra music and dialogue than one finds here. Despite that, I would never want to be without this outstanding achievement in documenting Der Zigeunerbaron on disc. Sampling just the enchanting Treasure Waltz is enough to show one the delicacy and lilt of Ackermann’s leadership and the superlative contributions of his cast.

Mike Parr

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Other performers:
Willy Ferenz (bass) – Conte Carnero
Erich Paulik (bass) – Pali
Karel Stepanek (actor) dialogue for Count Carnero,
Lea Seidl (actor) dialogue for Mirabella