Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Giuditta – Christiane Libor (sop)
Anita – Laura Scherwitzl (sop)
Octavio – Nikolai Schukoff (tenor)
Pierrino – Ralf Simon (tenor)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer
rec. live, Prinzregententheater, Munich, 21-22 January 2012
CPO 777749-2 [64:31 + 78:03]
Giuditta was Lehár’s last operetta, and pretty much the last operetta of them all. In a personal triumph for the composer, it was the only one of his works to be premiered in the Vienna Staatsoper on the Ringstrasse, and the prestige this brought him was something both hard won and much longed for. After its 1934 premiere, however, Austria began its descent into dictatorship and the traumas of Nazi occupation, and Lehár’s brand of musical theatre began to lose its grip on the public, for all that both Hitler and Mussolini loved his music.
The most grown-up operettas aren’t just about champagne and fizz, but feature a look at the darker side of life, too, and it’s fitting that the final operetta should do so in such a powerful and moving manner. The story concerns a serious couple (Giuditta and Octavio) and a light one (Pierrino and Anita) who both elope from Sicily to North Africa to start a new life. However, Octavio is called up to the army and abandons Giuditta. In his absence she takes up with the wealthy but unlovable Lord Barrymore and, when Octavio returns to claim her, he cannot bring himself to interrupt what he thinks is her move to happiness. Years later they meet again, he having taken up a prosaic living as a cocktail pianist. She tells him she always loved him, but that their lives have moved on so far that they cannot be together. Octavio’s final line is “It was only a fairy tale.”
It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but Lehár uses the setting as an excuse for some of his most glorious music, and it includes sugary sweet numbers as well as some of the bittersweet reflections for which he is so justifiably famous. The North African setting, for example, gives him lots of excuses to work in some local colour, most obviously in the tavern scene of Act 4, and you can repeatedly sense the composer’s lifetime of experience coming to bear on various numbers, such as the touch of the exotic in the elopement scenes, or the swoosh of, for example, Octavio’s first entry, which has all the sweep of a Hollywood musical.
The operetta’s best known number is Giuditta’s Act 4 song, “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß”, made famous by many a diva’s recital programme. I admit I didn’t know the work beyond this before hearing this new release, because recordings of it are thin on the ground. However, there is so much to enjoy in this one that I certainly won’t be looking for another one any time soon. The singing cast are very strong, and nicely distinguished from one another. Nikolai Schukoff has a beautifully throaty voice as Octavio, stamping his mark on his opening scenes with plenty of juice, and summing up the conflicted melancholy of the last scenes very convincingly. Next to him, Ralf Simon’s tenor is lighter and sweeter, but just as colourful, and when they sing together there is no danger that you’d mix them up.
The same is true with the principal ladies. Laura Scherwitzl has a lighter voice and the role requires more coloratura, even though she is a little thin on top. In the title role, however, Christiane Libor brings great weight and presence. This will be too much for some, I suspect, and when she first enters she brings such size that she sounds more like Brünnhilde than Hanna Glawari! I grew to rather like this, though, and it’s lovely to hear a “light” part like this sung with such opulence. And anyway, there is a touch of Tristan in the character of her big love duets with Octavio, so why not go the whole hog and give it an Isolde-ish voice?
The Munich RSO are super, catching all the colours and sparkles of the score with great aplomb – the Entr’actes are a particular highlight – and Ulf Schirmer judges the mood to perfection. There is seriousness when required, but also an important sense of perspective on life’s dramas, with one eye smiling and one eye weeping, as a wise man once said. And what distinguishes an opera from an operetta if not its mood? Schirmer understands this, and the work is safe in his hands.
The sound is excellent, and the crackle of the dialogue, as much as of the singing, reveals that this is a live recording, benefiting from the spontaneity of a live audience, though there is neither applause nor extraneous noise. The booklet contains a synopsis and a very informative essay, but no texts or translations.