Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is truly a lavish production for an otherwise unknown work.
The question inevitably prompted when faced with an obscure work by one of the mega-hit machines of popular music is, “what is missing here?” Young Franz Lehár’s first venture onto the operetta stage, Der Rastelbinder (“The Tinker,” 1912), does show most of the strengths that turned Die lustige Witwe into a worldwide phenomenon only three years later: memorable tunes, plenty of humor, opportunity for funny stage business, and a patina of the composer’s patented Hungarianisms. However, the underlying melancholy of its music, dependence on long stretches of spoken dialogue, often in dialect, use of children in risky dramatic situations, and
impassioned protest against ethnic self-denial combined were bound to limit the reach of its appeal.
Rastelbinder is cast in the form of a prologue and main action, where the former tells the pre-history. The boy Janku, foster-child to the tinker Voitech, is betrothed to the eight-year old Suza, but is sent off to learn his trade. Suza tries to borrow money for Janku, and only succeeds in doing so from the poor Jewish onion dealer Pfefferkorn, who from the beginning proves an endless source of homey advice. Twelve years later, Janku has found his way to Vienna, where he is now called Schani, and has become apprenticed to a tinsmith. The tinsmith’s daughter Mizzi is now smitten with him, he has friends in the military, and he has completely forgotten his Slavic youth and the girl to whom he was betrothed. That Suza is now betrothed to Schani’s army friend Milosch. Mizzi states that she could never be interested in a Slav, compelling Janku to further bury his own past. Suddenly, Pfefferkorn shows up in Vienna with Suza, who is eager to see Milosch; the onion dealer, however, wants to arrange a reunion with her old fiancé. The two remember nothing of each other and are not interested. Pfefferkorn tries to introduce Suza to urban ways by teaching her the latest dances. At a party, he also tries to prove that he is a true Viennese by yodeling. However, he is humiliated that the party is actually a celebration of the impending wedding of Mizzi and Schani-Janku. He announces that Janku is already betrothed to Suza. The second act descends into farce as all the major characters find themselves either drafted or, in the case of the girls, costume themselves in uniforms of the reserve. In the midst of all this, Pfefferkorn explains the situation to Janku and gradually becomes reconciled to abandoning the engagement he once oversaw, and the young people are reunited with their modern loves.
The operetta was a local success, at least partly because the audience at the Theater in der Josephstadt was sympathetic to its ethnic issues and partly because of its conductor, Alexander Zemlinsky; it launched the careers of several members of its cast. However, the intensity of the score’s Slavic coloring had rarely been encountered on the Austrian stage, and the only real concession to the conventions of Viennese operetta were the couplets given to the dominant part of Pfefferkorn.
This new disc from cpo, part of its survey of Lehár rarities but the first one not explicitly minted as part of that project, dusts off a priceless 1981 broadcast of the Austrian Radio (ORF) of the composer’s very first effort for the operetta stage. It was cast from strength, drawing together a handful of stars from the spoken, rather than the musical, world. Chief among these was longtime Burgtheater, movie, and television actor Fritz Muliar, a Viennese audience favorite best known perhaps for his realization of Schweik in the ORF miniseries based on Jaroslav Hašek’s eponymous classic novel; he was a well-known exponent of the comic leads in several “Posse mit gesang” by Johann Nestroy, perhaps the chief theatrical progenitor of the Austrian operetta. Pfefferkorn, his role here, sits squarely in this tradition of comic operetta; he is a folksy paternal character—a source of both witty social commentary and befuddlement, requiring a magnetic comedic sense, gruff charm, and only the bare minimum of singing prowess. Muliar brings relish to this role, and even provides a little better singing than I expected. Indeed, one of the joys of this recording is the naturalness of the spoken dialogue, given here complete, brimming with Wiener Dialekt and numerous felicities of timing. While Muliar is not the only actor who shines here, his thick, “echt-Wienerisch” monologues and couplets as the “onion dealer” Pfefferkorn are in themselves worth the price of admission.
As Suza, Elfie Hobarth displays a rather dusky, heavy sound for a comic soprano, but acquits herself idiomatically in the dialogue and also warms to the ensemble. Tenors Heinz Zednik and Adolf Dallapozza, ubiquitous fixtures of the Viennese stage, are caught in typically fine voices. Plus, they are typecast: Dallapozza assays the more yearning lyric tenor part of Milosch, while the more acidic sound of Zednik is well-suited to the character role of Janku.
The balance of chorus and orchestra sounds newly minted and is a showcase of what the ORF has been capable at its best. This is truly a lavish production for an otherwise unknown work. Soloists are rather forwardly placed, which is only to be expected from a radio broadcast of its vintage. Unfortunately, especially considering the prevalence of dialect throughout the recording—understanding of which is an acquired talent even for fluent German speakers—no text is provided beyond a detailed synopsis. But that is enough to begin the enjoyment. One can only wish cpo further success in fleshing out our image of Lehár by way of those many works that had never previously appeared in recordings. With Rastelbinder, Frühling, Sterngucker, and Tatjana in the can, can Göttergatte, Juxheirat, or Cloclo be far behind?
Christopher Williams, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Der Rastelbinder by Franz Lehár
Elfriede Hobarth (Soprano),
Adolf Dallapozza (Tenor),
Helga Papouschek (Soprano),
Fritz Muliar (Voice),
Heinz Zednik (Tenor)
Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Austrian Radio Chorus
Written: 1902; Vienna, Austria
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