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Blacher: Preussisches Marchen / Otto, Sardi, Richter

Blacher / Otto / Bauernfeind
Release Date: 01/29/2013 
Label:  Arthaus Musik   Catalog #: 101658  
Composer:  Boris Blacher
Performer:  Helmut KrebsCarol MaloneVictor von HalemGerti Zeumer,   ... 
Conductor:  Caspar Richter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Deutsche Oper ChorusBerlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Boris Blacher

Vater Fadenkreutz – Lisa Otto
Mutter Fadenkreutz – Ivan Sardi
Wilhelm – Manfred Röhrl
Auguste – Gerti Zeumer
Assessor Birkhahn – Donald Grobe
Bürgenmeister – Victor van Halem
Bürgenmeisterin – Barbara Scherler
Adelaide – Carol Malone
Zitzewitz – Helmut Krebs

Deutsche Oper Berlin Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Albert Limbach)
Caspar Richter, conductor

Winfried Bauernfeind, stage director
Ernst Wurzer, set designer
Werner Juhrke, costume designer
Helmut Baumann, choreographer

Recorded live from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1974
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Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 103 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)

R E V I E W:

Wilhelm Voigt was a thief and a forger. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. Born in 1849, trained by his father as a shoemaker, he spent more than 25 years of his life in prison on dozens of theft convictions before settling down in his 50s with his sister’s family, near Berlin. There in 1906 he started following his father’s profession, only to be expelled from the area later that year when his prison past was uncovered. Voigt took revenge cleverly: He purchased bits and pieces of a captain’s uniform from various pawn shops. Donning the completed outfit, he gathered a few soldiers from a barracks and later from a shooting range, then occupied the city hall in Köpenick, just east then of Berlin. Voigt had the local mayor and treasurer arrested, confiscated some money, and signed a receipt with the name of the director of the last penitentiary he’d been in. Though he changed clothes and slipped away, he was arrested in less than a week, and sentenced to a further four years imprisonment. But there’s a German love in some quarters of clever rogues who tweak the noses of authority—the many Renaissance folktales of Till Eulenspiegel attest to this—and the newspapers of the day publicized Voigt’s exploit. He was seen as a folk hero; Kaiser Wilhelm II pardoned him; he appeared on tour, and wrote a popular book of his brainstorm. He also received a pension from a rich dowager.

From this Carl Zuckmayer crafted a play in 1931, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, that made Voigt into a meek peasant hero, with a dose of sentimentality and hard-edged social outrage, focusing on the idolatry of militarism in the 19th-century Prussian mindset. It was adapted many times on film, before composer Boris Blacher began working in 1946 with his former-composition-student-turned-author, Heinz von Cramer, to make the play into a ballet-opera. Not half-ballet, half-opera, as Cramer pointed out before their Prussian Fairytale—Preussisches Märchen—debuted in 1952, but a work in which the operatic parts were imbued with the rhythms of dance.

Much of the satirical edge about social perceptions of an individual’s value were removed in order to provide a libretto the local authorities would accept. Instead, we get safe objects of caricature, primarily the rigid, small-minded bureaucracy of town councils. In this version, shoemaker-thief Voigt becomes tax inspector clerk Wilhelm Fadenkreutz, who accidentally offends the daughter of the self-important local mayor, and is dismissed by the latter from his job after serving for 20 years. Fadenkreutz acquires the captain’s uniform to help out his middle-aged sister Auguste, who is actually going on her first formal date, and wishes to impress that suitor with her family’s quality. The new army captain eventually finds love, then gathers soldiers, marches on town hall, gets the cashbox, arrests the mayor, and distributes the funds before being recognized—and when the police arrive, freed by the sensible mayor’s wife, who insists knowingly that if it went public they’d all be laughingstocks. He doesn’t get the girl, who loved him only for the uniform anyway, but he does get his old job back. The result was a hit in Berlin, and was remounted there in 1974. It was filmed that year on the stage studios of Sender Freies Berlin, and that’s what we have here.

The music is Stravinsky circa The Soldier’s Tale, infused with a dose of warmth and charm drawn from Johann Strauss Jr. and at times a vein of pure silliness (especially in the bankers’ dance right before Fadenkreutz is unmasked) that recalls Offenbach. Bitonal, it’s slightly acerbic thematically yet highly expressive: Auguste’s song of loneliness is the emotional highlight of the opera. Rhythms predominate, drawn from Italian 18th-century opera, and the Prussian Fairytale’s light textures and bright wit occasionally recall the almost-over-before-they’ve-started instrumental solos in Verdi’s Falstaff. The book works as a well-constructed, amusing farce, and the ballet sequence when Wilhelm sees himself in the mirror for the first time wearing the captain’s uniform is handled with a kind of fantastical panache, half George Balanchine, half Walter Mitty.

Stage director Winfried Bauernfeind began as an assistant to the celebrated stage and opera director Gustav Rudolf Sellner, who worked with the German Opera of Berlin on the model of Walter Felsenstein’s earlier efforts at the East Berlin Comic Opera. Her cast for the Prussian Fairytale has that ensemble feel you only get from a group of people who have been trained to act as well as to sing, and have been doing both together for a long time. (Just as in the East Berlin Comic Opera, so West Berlin’s German Opera emphasized lengthy contracts. Lisa Otto, for example, had been with them since 1952, and both Ivan Sardi and Donald Grobe, since 1961.) The acting has precision and economy of effect, and save in moments of soliloquy, exists always in relation to other characters on stage. This is worlds away from the “look at me, I’m singing now” that still passes for acting in some operatic quarters to this day.

I do, however, have a concern about a piece of casting. In the 1972 stage production, Ivan Sardi played Wilhelm’s father, and Lisa Otto, his mother. When this filmed version of it was made, they switched roles. Granted, it’s a comic farce. Does that mean you wouldn’t mind if a bass who played Bartolo and a mezzo who played Marcellina also switched roles? What if Le Nozze di Figaro was never previously recorded, and hadn’t been seen before by most of the people who would purchase it? I don’t know that Blacher approved, or was even asked his opinion on the matter. I just wish that the first (and to date, only) recorded commercial performance of Prussian Fairytale had been made of the work as it was first written and composed. At least the direction itself avoids going over-the-top, because farce works best when it’s played with a straight face. The costumes are perfect for the period, and the sets do a fine job re-creating turn-of-the-20th-century Berlin, with a creative touch of appropriate expressionistic lighting in the junk dealer’s shop.

The singing itself is fine throughout. I’d especially single out Manfred Röhrl’s Wilhelm, Gerti Zeumer’s reflective Auguste, and Donald Grobe’s understated, very funny Birkhahn for their way of phrasing musically, while interpreting their parts with an almost songlike attention to detail. The mixed chorus at the beergarden is a delight to hear, and how often can you say that about operatic choruses? Caspar Richter leads an energetic, sharply pointed performance.

The camerawork is subtle, choosing angles and smooth, long, and mid-range tracking shots and zooms that focus on group actions rather than individual performer’s faces. Unusually, the original analog materials appear to have suffered no deterioration over time, with distinct color tones, reasonable contrasts, and focused imaging. The sound remains clear, though in PCM mono. Picture format is 4:3; subtitles are provided in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian. The translation is good but paraphrases too much, and whoever did it made a few questionable decisions. Typical is the bank president singing about the joys of an early morning, rising from bed with one’s beloved wife, and enjoying a cigarette—except in the English subtitles, the cigarette is gone, and we are told he’s saying instead that the coffee is aromatic. Perhaps the implication of a smoke after sex was considered just too much for our virgin American brains. In any case, the Prussian Fairytale is a fun little opera, amusingly sardonic, and wittily performed by a good cast. Recommended.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Preussisches Märchen, Op. 30 by Boris Blacher
Performer:  Helmut Krebs (Tenor), Carol Malone (Soprano), Victor von Halem (Bass),
Gerti Zeumer (Soprano), Donald Grobe (Tenor), Ivan Sardi (Bass),
Lisa Otto (Soprano), Manfred Röhrl (Bass), Barbara Scherler (Alto)
Conductor:  Caspar Richter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus,  Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1949 

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