Wednesday 6 July 2022

Frothy fun: Johann Strauss' unaccountably neglected operetta Blindekuh

Johann Strauss II: Blindekuh; Robert Davison, Kirsten C Kunkle, Martina Bortolotti, Roman Picher, James Bowers, Andrea Chudak, Daniel Schliewa, Emily K Byrene, Julian Rohde, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Dario Salvi; Naxos

Johann Strauss II: Blindekuh; Robert Davison, Kirsten C Kunkle, Martina Bortolotti, Roman Picher, James Bowers, Andrea Chudak, Daniel Schliewa, Emily K Byrene, Julian Rohde, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Dario Salvi; Naxos

Written a few years after Die Fledermaus and unaccountably neglected, Strauss' operetta proves a work of great charm in this revival from Sofia

Johann Strauss the younger completed some 15 operettas over a span of over 25 years (1871 to 1897). All but one, Ein Nacht in Venedig were premiered in Vienna. Yet only one has made a regular place in the repertoire, Die Fledermaus (premiered in 1874), whilst two others make it as also-rans, Ein Nacht in Venedig (1883) and Die Zigeunerbaron (1885), both more common in German speaking areas than elsewhere. The commonly accepted reason for this is the poor quality of Strauss' librettos. Certainly most of the plots of his operettas are based on ideas of Boulevard comedies with disguise and mistaken identity a central feature. But the plot of Die Fledermaus is hardly a model of lucidity and the basic premise of the plot requires a degree of explanation. 

It is curious how some operas have become accepted, despite limitations of libretto whilst others are shunned. Sometimes this is certainly related to that almost unquantifiable element, the composer's engagement with the libretto, but sometimes it can be down to other elements. Gustav Mahler raised the artistic status of Strauss' Die Fledermaus by performing it at Hamburg Opera House, and this feeling that Die Fledermaus is more 'operatic' might be the reason for its greater popularity.

Strauss' Blindekuh (Blind Man's Buff) premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna in 1878. It had a respectable run and then a run of performances in Budapest, and then evidently, very little. The libretto is based on a comedy by the German actor and playwright Rudolf Kneisel (1832-1899) and one of the complaints charged against the operetta was that the plot was too complex. Certainly, it seems to have taken much of Kneisel's mistaken-identity farce rather too literally. There is the feeling that there are rather too many characters and rather too much business and that a sure hand with the scissors might have helped things along. 

Yet, for the Strauss enthusiast (and for others), there is plenty of delightful music. That is where recordings come in. In 2019, Dario Salvi conducted the Sofia Philharmonic and Chorus in a recording of Johann Strauss' Blindekuh for Naxos with Robert Davidson (Scholle), Kirsten Kunkle (Arabella), Martina Bortolotti (Waldine), James Bowers (Adolf), Daniel Schliewa (Kragel), Andrea Chudak (Betsy), Emily Byrne (Elvira), Julian Rohde (Johann) and Roman Pichler (Hellmuth).

There is no dialogue, and the plot summary in the booklet rather requires close reading (but then so does the summary on Wikipedia). What makes the piece work is the delightful sequence of musical numbers. Perhaps one might have the suspicion that the music does not always illuminate the character in a way we might expect with an opera, but then if we were watching the full operetta performed in our native language then our appreciation of the characters would change.

Realistically, the recording makes us simply sit back and enjoy the music. Salvi and the orchestra bring a sure and stylish hand to the music, and this is music that needs the right feeling of style. When listening to operetta I don't insist on an echt Viennese pedigree but a certain amount of style and elan is necessary, and this disc has it.

There are nine major characters, rather oddly distributed with three sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, four tenors and a bass baritone, and all four tenors get a solo number! As Johann, the comic servant role, Julian Rohde shows comic charm and character, and gets two solo numbers. The notional hero, Helmuth is introduced with a pair of solo numbers, and Roman Pilcher is a fine hero, full of style and character. But Helmuth is masquerading as Adolf, and in the second act the two have a duet with Pilcher and James Bowers (Adolf) a great delight. The fourth tenor is Kragel, an officer of the court and another comic role, with Daniel Schliewa showing a nice turn of wit.

The women get fewer solo number, the heroine Waldine (Martina Bortolotti) and her governess (Emily K Byrne) are introduced via a charmingly contrasting duet, and Adolf's wife Betsy (Andrea Chudak) also has a characterful solo.

But the operetta is also full of ensembles, and the finales to Acts 1 and 2 are significant large-scale, complex multi-sectional structure where Strauss combines melodic felicity with plenty of variety and interest. And there are plenty of good tunes here, witty orchestration and a nice feel for structure in the larger pieces. 

When all is said and done, Blindekuh is a charmingly fizzy pastoral comedy, with a plot that has its fair degree of barminess. Yet, the music is full of delights and on this disc Salvi and his forces make you wonder why the opera has languished for so long.

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) - Blindekuh (1878) [105:01]
Robert Davison, Kirsten C Kunkle, Martina Bortolotti, Roman Picher, James Bowers, Andrea Chudak, Daniel Schliewa, Emily K Byrene, Julian Rohde
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Dario Salvi (conductor)
Recorded live, 7-13 January 2019 at Bulgaria Hall, Sofia, Bulgaria
NAXOS 8.660434-35 2CD [49:55, 55:16]

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