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Emil Nikolaus Joseph von REZNIČEK (1860-1945)
rec. live, Chemnitz Opera House, Saxony, November 2010
Full texts, libretto and translations are provided in the booklet.
CPO 777 653-2 [2 CDs: 93:09]

Emil Nikolaus Joseph, Freiherr von Reznicek was born in 1860, the son of an Austrian Military noble and a Rumanian princess. ‘Freiherr’ was a title, roughly equivalent to ‘Baron’, of ancient origin in the Holy Roman Empire. He lived most of his life as an aristocrat and like Richard Strauss, he became entangled with the Nazi regime at a musically administrative level, but his wife was of Jewish stock and so he feared for her and his daughter. Musically, the Nazi’s didn’t think much of him, and several of his works were not performed in Germany. He was very friendly with Strauss, and although his music never became as popular, he was certainly very highly regarded in central Europe for much of his compositional career, and as all the recordings of his works show, he was Strauss’ equal as a master of the orchestra.
 
CPO have been industriously recording Reznicek’s output – the five symphonies (review ~ review ~ review), several lengthy symphonic poems and concertos (review), the operas Ritter Blaubart (review) and Donna Diana (review). Now we have this hitherto unperformed opera, Benzin, described in its title as a ‘cheerful fantastic play with music in two acts’. It is, in fact, Reznicek’s eleventh opera (if one includes operettas in the list). The basis of the piece is essentially the Odysseus and Circe story as re-told by the 17th century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Barreda González de Henao Ruiz de Blasco y Riaño. Naturally, Reznicek decided to update it further by adding a journey by Zeppelin to Circe’s island! On the CPO website and in the CD booklet one can read that “it is a farcical, fantastic drama à la E. T. A. Hoffmann in which grotesque exaggeration renders tolerable the depths and perils of human existence”.
 
Having much enjoyed all my earlier purchases of Reznicek CD’s, I was much looking forward to listening to this opera. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it very much, and that is not the fault of the performance or recording. I have never been at all fond of Strauss’s ‘Die Schweigsame Frau’, because of its almost continual chatter, and ‘Benzin’, preceding it by three years, has much the same characteristic.
 
The first act begins with a few seconds of orchestral music, and the singing starts as it continues – very wordy, with little or no chance for the development of lyrical arias. When an individual has a lengthy stretch of text to sing, it tends to be a recitative-like descriptive of the situation.
 
A zeppelin is observed flying over an unnamed island and is perceived to be approaching for a landing. It is identified as being an airship attempting to win a round the world speed title, and when it lands, its pilot Ulysses Eisenhardt says that his craft is running short of petrol (= Benzin) and he is delighted to observe such superb facilities for re-fuelling. His crew disembark and are welcomed by the island’s manager, Joe M. Plumcake, who tells them that the island is the property of billionaire Jeremias D. Thunderbolt and that his daughter, Gladys lives there and treats it as her own. In an aside he makes mysterious comments about the fate awaiting the aviators. When Gladys appears, she is immediately taken by the dashing Eisenhardt and prepares to have ‘fun’ with him and his crew. She is accompanied by several female friends, who are impressed by the male aviators and who likewise refer to the fun that they are about to have, although one of them, Violet, is concerned to keep Freidank, the engineer away from Gladys. It transpires that Gladys is a hypnotist of amazing powers, who delights in making slaves of the visitors to the island by making them behave as if they are animals. She uses her powers on the crew who promptly start to make animal noises.
 
However, Eisenhardt is made of sterner stuff and by exercising his will, is able to resist her mesmeric powers. Taken aback, she removes the hypnotism from all the crew and invites them to her palace where they dance with Gladys’ friends.
 
By the end of this first act it is apparent that the singers are all extremely good – no squally sopranos or hoarse tenors. In fact, Johanna Stojkovic as Gladys and Guibee Yang as Violet are exceptionally fine, as is Carsten Süss as Eisenhardt and Kouta Räsänen as Thunderbolt. The orchestra is very good and the performance is as propulsive as is necessary for such a wordy piece. They are all captured by a well-balanced, audience noise-free, live recording and the conductor, Frank Beermann, has already recorded several of CPO’s earlier Reznicek CD’s.
 
One can only applaud the efforts of the Chemnitz Opera in their revival of the piece, and wonder at the sheer number of Opera houses in Germany – about 80 in all, compared with Britain’s 14. Apparently, in 2013 no fewer than 1/3rd of all the world’s opera performances took place in Germany. This situation has arisen for historical reasons – before the German states were united by Bismarck, more or less each little Grand Ducal State had its own court orchestra and opera, and many have survived to the present day.
 
It is also apparent that Reznicek had the ability to write memorable musical material to accompany the singers, and provides a foxtrot for the first act dance and a tango in the second. I just wish that he had composed true arias for the lovers – for such Gladys and Eisenhardt become at the end of the second act. This is 26’ minutes longer than the 33’ first act, and contains the bulk of the interaction between the primary and secondary characters. The basic scenario revolves around Glady’s determination to keep Eisenhardt on the island, being unable to stomach her ‘defeat’ at his hands. To this end, she persuades Violet to seduce him. Violet is reluctant because she has fallen for Freidank, but consents because she wants to make him jealous. Meanwhile two of the colleagues of Eisenhardt have fallen for Lissy and Nell, and try to persuade them to go with them to Munich and Berlin…..and so on and so forth. The whole thing is a ridiculous concoction, becoming impenetrably complex as when Plumcake is turned into a parrot after a disagreement with Gladys’, and then her father appears, demanding that his daughter release Eisenhardt and the crew because he has a multi-million bet that he will win the race. He, incidentally, falls for an unnamed ‘old woman’ who appears towards the end of the opera.
 
So much is going on, with short-breathed melodic cells characterising the singing, that I found it difficult to sort one character from the next. Occasionally, as in a short duet between Violet and Freidank, a good tune will appear, but not for long. I suppose that the whole thing is too brittle for there to be much chance of relaxation into long-breathed lyricism, and a tendency to excessive recitative is apparent throughout. By the end, I was gasping for an extended aria or lyrical duet that never appeared.
 
Although I know little of Reznicek’s other operas, I rather wish that Chemnitz had decided to put on one that allowed his very impressive melodic ability to flower at greater length than Benzin permits. For example, a beautiful orchestral interlude for violin and harp appears towards the end of the act; it lasts for about 3 minutes, and that’s it. Typically, it is followed by more chatter. The last six minutes of the opera ramp up to the all’s-well-that-ends-well finale, but even here, as the cast wonder whether Gladys and Eisenhardt will be reconciled there is much orchestral jiggery-pokery as the airship is refuelled and prepares to take off. The composer evidently believed that a very brief ‘Eisenhardt!’ - ’Gladys!’ interchange was all that was necessary to provide an operatic culmination to their strange love-affair, and then the hero and heroine enter the airship. The opera closes with general rejoicing.
 
If I am presumptuous enough in Reznicek’s defence, that he had a super ability to conjure dance music – there are several episodes where the music takes on a dance-like quality, and it is here as much as anywhere else, that his melodic facility is displayed. I recall that his 5th Symphony is subtitled ‘Dance Symphony’ (review).
 
The booklet that accompanies this 2-CD set is produced to CPO’s usual exactingly high standards. A detailed biography of Reznicek is included, together with an immensely detailed discussion and description of the opera, a tracked synopsis of each act and full texts and translations (German/English). Unlike some earlier CPO notes, which have been irremediably convoluted, the essays here are fluent and easily understood. Photographs of the production are also included along with the usual biographies of the principals.
 
Jim Westhead
 
Performance details
Benzin – ‘A Cheerful Fantastic Play in Two Acts’
Kouta Räsänen (Bass) – Jeremias Thunderbolt (Billionaire)
Johanna Stojkovic (Soprano) – Gladys, his daughter
Guibee Yang (Soprano) – Violet, her friend
Susanne Thielemann (Soprano) – Lissy
Tiina Pentttiten (Contralto) – Nell
Thomas Mäthger (Bass) – Joe M. Plumcake, an admirer of Gladys
Heidrun Göpfert (Soprano) – an older woman
Matthias Winter (Baritone) - Meyer, Head Servant in Gladys’ Palace
Carsten Süss (Tenor) – Ulysses Eisenhardt, Commander of the Zeppelin
Andreas Kindschuh (Baritone) – Engineer
André Reimer (Tenor) – Radio Operator
Martin Gäbler (Bass) – Franz Xaver Obertupfer
Mathias Kunze (Tenor) – Müller
Peter Heber (Tenor) – Lehmann
Stephan Hönig (Bass) – A servant
Ulrike Bader (Soprano) – A lady
The Chemnitz Opera Choir/director Mary Adelyn Kauffman
The Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Frank Beerman

 

 




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