Kálmán: Der Zigeunerprimas / Flor, Lienbacher, Rossmanith

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KÁLMÁN Der Zigeunerprimas ? Claus Peter Flor, cond; Gabriele Rossmanith (Sári); Edith Lienbacher (Juliska); Zoran Todorovich (Gaston); Roberto Saccà (Laczi); Wolfgang Bankl ( Pali Rácz ); Sunnyi Melles (narr); Munich RSO; Slovakian P Ch; Bavarian St. Op Children?s Ch ? cpo 777 058 (2 CDs: 101:23)

About three years ago, the Ohio Light Opera released an English-language recording of the complete score, with dialogue, of Kálmán?s early hit Zigeunerprimas (?The Gypsy Violinmaster?). Known to its first American audiences by the name of its heroine, Sári , this story of generational conflict in a family of Hungarian musicians offers ample opportunities for local color á la Hongroise , in so doing providing a resume of the shifting styles of central European operetta at the turn of the century. In my review of that release (26:1), I noted that the composer frequently timed the American and European premieres of his stage works so as to maximize their impact on both sides of the Atlantic, to great success, and with a notable impact on his style, which embraced ?American? dance forms and syncopations faster than did the works of his continental contemporaries

I also noted that the virtues of the Ohio recording lay primarily in the quality of the playing?higher than is often the case from that summer-stock company?and the naturalness of the atmosphere. Surprisingly, while the new recording scores in many areas by comparison, especially in the quality of the direction, orchestral playing, and interpretation (hardly surprising, given the provenance of the musicians), not to mention that it is presented in the original German, the less-polished Ohio effort remains a surprisingly resilient contender.

The reason for this has more to do with the presentation than the performance. If the German recording had merely been cut, or if it consisted solely of musical excerpts, one would be able to rue a loss in dramatic continuity, particularly in the many involving melodramas that run through the score. But the producers have gone a step further, introducing a narrator, who intrudes between musical numbers not only to provide plot summary, which she delivers somewhat in the manner of a carnival barker, but also snatches of dialogue. In itself, the voice of Sunnyi Melles serves the purpose, but when she is called upon to embody the old gypsy violin master and his son, even when they are arguing with one other, one wishes the radio studio had at least hired some other actors. Perhaps to save airtime in the broadcast, dialogue is cut and summarized, often archly and pompously. Elsewhere, the recording falters with a grating, stilted use of a children?s choir in Sari?s entrance scene. While the number calls on her to interact with a group of children, their stilted laughter and clockwork ?oohs? and ?aahs? suck spontaneity out of the moment.

Yet the virtues of the present recording are obvious from the first chords of the overture, with its idiomatically sensitive rubato phrasing, suggesting both an authentic ?Hungarian? flavor and the underlying melancholy?the sense of loss?of the title character. Particularly apt are the many stylistic shifts, which correspond to the changing traditions and tastes reflected in the different musical worlds of father and son. The virtuosic solo violin passages keyed to the father?s world have their folk-music roots underscored by a generous application of cimbalom (an effect missing from the Ohio production); Claus Peter Flor captures the springing fox-trot and waltz rhythms of the son?s emphatically turn-of-the-century world with a constant sense of interest. Narration aside, the finely balanced recording and orchestral playing are almost worth the price of admission.

As the ?Gypsy Master? Pali Racz himself, Wolfgang Bankl projects a weighty and appropriate sense of age, his baritone a bit woolly and weary but constantly in the part. The key moment is his character?s final humiliation. Greeted as an exotic, Racz is asked to play at a Parisian party where his son has already scored with appropriately light and ?modern? dance music. But the bored guests viciously ridicule his old-fashioned gypsy virtuosity as ?horrible scratching.? Bankl invests his voice here with palpable heartbreak, as he sings the reprise of his love song to his ?old Stradivarius.? The finality with which he packs up his career and delivers his prized old instrument to the son he has always undervalued is truly moving.

Bankl?s ?older? voice effectively contrasts with the heroic sound of Zoran Todorovich as his rival and Sari?s eventual love-interest, Gaston. Todorovich has become a constant at Austrian operetta festivals in recent years, and the baritonal steel of his voice does render Gaston a convincing romantic lead. The other roles are also well cast. Edith Lienbacher?s Juliska is light and a bit warbly, but blends glowingly with Roberto Saccà?s light tenor (as the put-upon son Laczi), particularly in the duet at the opening of the second act, whose own distilled Wagnerism bears more than a passing similarity to the Pavillon duet from The Merry Widow . Gabriele Rossmanith rounds out the principals with a powerfully sung Sari. Special mention should also be made of the excellent solo violin work that runs throughout; much of this score comes across as a kind of ?violin concerto in the form of an operetta,? but the soloist unfortunately goes uncredited.

Now that we finally have a recording of Zigeunerprimas in its original language, the choice is clear but difficult. For theatrical atmosphere and a sense of how Kálmán?s theater works for the American stage, the OLO recording may do nicely; but for atmosphere, color, interpretation, and sheer vocalism, the Munich recording comes out far ahead. If only that narrator could somehow be plucked out, I could recommend the new cpo recording without reservations.

FANFARE: Christopher Williams

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 22, 2005

  • Catalog Number: 777058-2

  • UPC: 761203705825

  • Label: CPO

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Emmerich Kálmán

  • Conductor: Claus Peter Flor

  • Performer: Edith Lienbacher, Gabriele Rossmanith, Kay Stiefermann, Roberto Saccà, Wolfgang Bankl, Zoran Todorovic