Komische Opera in drei Akten. Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes.
Did anyone notice that I switched the Strauss here? I am planning out more Richard, but I have never tackled a Johann before, and there is a reason for that, although Johann Strauss worse 15 operettas, he always wanted to write an opera, and he wrote precisely one opera.
I think that just about everyone can be forgiven for not knowing that Johann Strauss actually wrote one legitimate opera (along with 15 operettas). What is more, its obscurity belies the fact that this one opera sounds next to nothing like the Johann Strauss of Die Fledermaus, apart from perhaps its one famous piece, the act three Csardas, and the rest of the ballet. In fact, it comes off as far closer to early Ferenc Erkel or even early Wagner. The plot is even more bizarre than the score and must be read to be believed. However, the female lead is a mezzo-soprano!
Johann Strauss II was born into a Viennese Roman Catholic family, however, he had a Hungarian Jewish great-grandfather and later converted to Lutheranism (and changed his citizenship to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) in order to attain a divorce from his second wife (who he married six weeks after the death of his first wife, who was a famous mezzo-soprano). However, he lived, worked, and died in Vienna.
Rather appropriately, this opera received its first performance on New Years Day, 1892, although it only ran for nine performances. Generally speaking, the consensus is that the score is well orchestrated, and the act three ballet is the best music, while the libretto (based on a 19th century Hungarian epic poem) is banal and the musical characterizations of the various roles lack individuality. Let us take a look!
SETTING: Hungary, circa 1330 (I will explain). The title character is a Hungarian knight named Pazman (bass-baritone) who becomes enraged when he learns that his wife Eva (mezzo-soprano) has been kissed by a passing hunter who had been given food and lodging at their castle. Pazman goes to the King of Hungary, Charles Robert de Anjou (tenor) who turns out to be the hunter who kissed Eva. Pazman then kisses the Queen (soprano) (probably Elizabeth of Poland who was consort of Charles Robert from 1320 until his death in 1342, hence the dating I am using here, although she is unnamed in the score). All ends happily.
HISTORIAN PHIL: Yes, you read that correctly, Anjou. Hungary has an odd dynastic history, having only been ruled by natives for around 400 of its 917 years as a kingdom, at times being ruled by Italian, German, French, Czech, Polish, and even the Luxembourgish before the Ottoman invasion starting in 1526 and the eventual Habsburg reconquest which lasted until 1918. Charles Robert was the first Capetian monarch of Hungary, Anjou losing control of Hungary following the death of his granddaughter Mary in 1395 whose husband, Sigismund of Luxembourg, died in 1437 as king of not only Hungary and Croatia but also Germany and Bohemia, as well as Holy Roman Emperor, briefly uniting much of Central Europe under a single monarch.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: The Castle of Pasman, preparations being made for a hunting banquet. (47 minutes)
2: Die Manner gehen fort The prelude flows immediately into a brief spinning chorus * which is obviously modeled off of the opening to act two of Flying Dutchman and sets up the beginning of the action: the men are off hunting while the women are preparing a banquet for them.
6: Auf Feldern in den Waldern It is followed by a duet for Eva and her contralto maid Grundy *.
8: Der Ritter Pasman schickte The sound of horns outside alerts Eva that her husband should be returning, this is confirmed by the arrival of his tenor squire, Mischu who gets a dapper little announcement number *.
11: Sonne und Regen The first number which sounds distinctly Straussian is a duet for Grundy and Mischu about the weather and matrimony * where Strauss appears to not know what the range of a contralto is (she gets high As, multiples!). Even Eva is stretching the definition of what a mezzo-soprano may be (it seems to mean anything short of the high C or higher!). Strauss is also not using the lower parts of the range for either his contralto or mezzo-soprano so far. Mischu has a range which is within the normal parameters of the tenor scale.
12: Ich bin ein Ungar und Edelmann Pasman arrives with a very Hungarian sounding ballad * about how noble a Hungarian he is. Interjections are made by one of the members of the hunting party, a tenor, who happens to be the King in disguise, as Pasman orders Mischu and Grundy around.
17: Ich armer König The King exclaims upon the beauty * of one of the women (this is Eva, although he does not know it yet). Eva comes on and she and the King (who she things is just a hunter) have a long interview in which he asks if she is the daughter of Pasman and she reveals that she is actually his wife! This shocks the King.
24: Verizeih, Du himm lisch The King reveals that he is in love with Eva in the second half of their duet ** which prompts an orchestral outburst which concludes on a very dreamy note.
27: Hoihoh! Hoihoh! A rather elegant all-male hunting chorus ** as Pasman returns and greets his wife. Much of what follows over the next ten minutes consists of snippets of conversations between first Mischu, Omode, and Rodomonte (Mischu taking lines for Grundy at times in this recording) and then Eva and the King with Pasman interjecting into all conversations. There are cuts here, especially into the parts for Rodomonte and Omode with Grundy having her lines traded off mostly to Mischu).
36: So Fruh! A mildly climactic ensemble with the chorus *.
38: Der Wein! Der Wein! Der Wein! The King calls for wine *.
39: Der Wein der Wein! The role of Omode is sung here by a baritone although it is written for tenor in the score and he has a short drinking song here *.
42: Doch ben segen A climactic drinking song **.
45: Oh susse Eva! The King, who is now quite drunk, first asks Grundy for a kiss (which is refused and the woman leaves the hall). The King then asks Eva (who is not even present) for a kiss on a high A-flat as the curtain falls *.
ACT 2: The Castle Gardens, the following day. (36 minutes)
1: Noch rührt sich nicht A long encounter between the King and Eva in the garden results in her kissing him on the forehead * opens the act. Eventually, he gives her a ring, which she at first refuses, but is an important plot forwarding device as it can identify him. What is more, he reveals his true identity.
15: O Goldne Frucht am Finally, after nearly a quarter hour of tenor highlights, Eva gets her aria **, a fine lyric mezzo-soprano number. This is followed by a dialogue between Pasman and Mischu (who are searching for Tasman’s helmet) in which the latter reveals that he saw the hunter kissing Eva, which sets the plot (such as it is) into motion.
21: Nur leise The King gets a lovely little number with the male chorus *, although it lasts all of a minute (although it gets choral reprise, at least). The King and his men leave. There is a brief conversation between Grundy and Rodomonte, and then Pasman comes on in fury about Eva having had been kissed by the hunter.
29: Mir war so wohl The furious Pasman decides to take his outrage to the King himself (not realizing that the King is himself the cause of his disgrace). Eva comes on with the chorus and confirms what happened (although she does not reveal the King’s identity). Pasman has a good mono-cant at this point ** with a strong orchestral support as he confesses knowing that he is much older than his wife, but he loves her as though he were a younger man.
35: Komm Zurück! As Pasman leaves, there is supposed to be a quartet for the servants and Eva before she decides to follow after her husband, ending on a sustained high-A for the mezzo as the curtain falls *.
ACT 3: The Castle of King Charles Robert. (37 minutes)
0: The act starts off with a long prelude ** which sounds a lot like Weber met up with Ferenc Erkel and then Wagner on a road trip to Budapest, and then took a detour to Vienna and visited Johann Strauss. It sets a positive tone for the act.
3: Heil! Heil Unser Konigin! It is followed by a chorus of courtiers as they salut the until now unheard of Queen **. This is followed by a conversation between the Queen, the King, and Omode about the business of the King kissing the wife of a knight.
8: Das Madchen mit Locken This prompts a glorious duet ** from the Queen and King (which starts off as a mono-cant for the Queen) with a solo (although not reprehensible) violin.
10: The Csardas ** is the most famous item in the score and is around one quarter of an extended (twenty-minute) ballet sequence which is supposed to make up close to a third of the act (including a March, two polkas (which sound very Straussian), a Mazurka, and a Waltz, before the Csardas). Rodomonte announces the arrival of Pasman. The rest of the ballet can be heard here:
18: Herr König, ich bin kein alter Herr Pasman states his grievance to the King about Eva being kissed by a random hunter in a touching mono-cant * followed by similar monologue for Rodomonte. Eva shows up with the servants and a lot gets sorted out through some mildly accompanied recitative.
27: Was hast du? Finally, Strauss pulls out a martial tune in the orchestra and chorus while the soloists continue the action **. The King realizes that he must allow Pasman to kiss the Queen in exchange for him kissing Eva. This creates an obvious conflict, as Eva does not want this to happen.
31: Halt! Was er gebraucht The Queen, however, is rather magnanimous about everything and kisses Pasman **, ending the rivalry and the balance of power is restored. Curtain.
Okay, so, the plot is ridiculously flimsy, but I think a case can be made for parts of the score, especially act three. That this is barely even a beta is a forgone conclusion, I will not pretend that the only Johann Strauss opera is some sort of hidden alpha lurking about the Vienna Woods for over a century and a quarter, but the orchestration and some of the music are actually pretty good.
The characterizations are weak, everyones music sounds the same apart from Pasman himself, and when Strauss wants to make things interesting he just throws in trademark waltzes, even in the vocal line, which can get tiresome after the first dozen or so have elapsed. Strauss probably is at his best with the Magyar idioms in the score, although he does produce four relatively strong personages in the King (whose romantic longings are ardent if misplaced), the Queen (whose power is softened with gentleness in her relatively brief appearance), Eva (who, if this opera were in any way famous, would probably be a prize mezzo-soprano role), and Pasman himself (who is almost Falstaff-esque in his personification of an elderly man married to a younger woman whom he loves while guided by his Magyar noble sense of honor, a sentiment which, ironically enough is fully captured by Strauss in his score).
The other characters appear to be more comedic and/or functional than anything else, although this production appears to have cut rather a lot of material.
The first act is by far the weakest musically, mostly sustained by it having more plot forwarding than the other two and including the necessary character introductions. The King and the male chorus probably get the best out of the first half of the score, however, the high points of the second act are actually the arias for Eva and Pasman, respectively. The third act has a stronger overall musical tone than the first two, although even here, in the middle of the act after the ballet, the music starts to drop in temperature only to be salvaged in the end by the chorus and the Queen.
However, that does not mean that this is a bad performance, far from it. Heinz Wallberg conducts the Vienna Radio Orchestra from October 1975 here in a very well put together concert performance (albeit with cuts, including much of the comedy and most of the ballet). The orchestra and singers pull off an excellent performance, but of music which is obviously of a lower quality than the effort they are exerting, which is unfortunate because it exposes the opera as being so bad, it is almost good!
A beta minus or even a gamma plus at best, but an interesting one if for no other reason than the novelty of this being a through-composed Johann Strauss work. Ironically, the plot places it in the same category as Ariadne auf Naxos, the music isn’t too bad, but what is going on in your brain while you listen to it is far more interesting than the mind-numbing scenario going on on stage. In any case, like anything else J. Strauss II wrote, it would be good to hear around New Years. Oh wait, Rosh Hashanah is tomorrow!