Notes and Editorial Reviews
There is a great deal to enjoy in this 2004 French radio recording of Johann Strauss, Jr’s grandest operetta, the first one since Harnoncourt’s important “scholarly” studio reconsideration from over 10 years ago. This version without dialogue does not offer the exhaustive portfolio of its predecessor, nor is it cast as luxuriously, but it is delivered with Schwung and panache, and will thrill first-time listeners as well as seasoned Straussians.
Instead of the flat, artificial echoes typical of radio transmission, the engineering crew of Radio France has created a realistic, stage-like balance that favors the resonant depths of some of the bass and percussion writing and places voices in a natural perspective vis-à-vis the orchestra. As a result, one hears details of Strauss’s ear for the coloristic interaction of voices and instruments that are sometimes missed, even in studio recordings. Particularly fine are the orchestral contributions, notably in the wispy atmospherics of the second act, and the fine-grained oboe solo of the overture. Armin Jordan earns his stripes as an honorary Austrian, finding and subtly pointing the pressure points of Strauss’s sophisticated rhythmic palette, properly anticipating the “typisch Wienerisch” second-beat syncopations. His skill at building long lines across the multiple numbers of each act, honed across a distinguished career conducting orchestral and heavy operatic repertoire, underscores the brilliance of Strauss’s musical arc-forms. On the local scale, he shapes the lyrical instrumental writing lovingly, with a fastidious sensitivity to color, showing vividly how far the composer went beyond the pallid conventions of the theater orchestra to create a shimmering, at times over-written tapestry of changing hues.
Though completely overrun nowadays in the minds of casual Straussians by Die Fledermaus, The Gypsy Baron was actually the most successful of Strauss’s operettas during his lifetime, at the box office, and with the critics. But this tale of a pig-farmer, a dispossessed heir, a fortune teller, buried treasure, marriage, mistaken identity, and the joys of going off to the war for that wacky Austrian empire relies more on continuous musical development and interactive ensemble singing than its jolly alcoholic counterpart, which is much more of a conventional “number opera.” But that dogged champion of “absolute music,” Eduard Hanslick, held back little in praising the work’s “unaffected naturalness” and careful craft, and who are we to argue?
Although some of the soloists endure passing moments of struggle in the early going, they warm to their task, often contributing their most intensely felt work to the many delicate ensembles with which the score is bejeweled. Serbian tenor Zoran Todorovic’s voice brings a worrying pinched and barking quality to his entrance couplet, which, however, relaxes into a firm ring as the recording unfolds, employing his voice flexibly during the finale to act I. The reprise of his couplet waltz in the opera’s closing bars is remarkably smooth and fresh. In the lead role of Saffi, Natalia Ushakova fights mightily to rein in the wobble of her piercing soprano and slight pitch insecurity at full volume, again most pronounced in her own robust entrance song. Like Todorovic, though, she succeeds more as the work unfolds, shining notably in the ensemble sections, where she blends satisfyingly with her colleagues. Under control, it is flexible, velvet in texture.
Other roles are assumed more consistently from the outset. Jeannette Fischer brings a tight vibrato and flexibly liquid tone to the soubrette role of Arsena, matched smoothly in duet with the voice of her governess, Mirabella (Hanna Schaer). She is well paired with the smoothly textured tenor of her Ottakar, Martin Homrich. Baritone Béla Perencz is suitably swaggering as the recruiter Homonay, bringing with Todorovic a driving force to the act II finale. And Rudolf Wasserlof, a long-time veteran of Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt, is winningly gruff and “echt-Wienerisch” in the couplet role of the pig-handler Zsupan. He contributes rather more voice than one is accustomed to in a part that calls mainly for comic speaking and mugging. Perhaps the most impressive singing comes from Ewa Wolak in the taxing role of the gypsy woman Czipra, smoothly producing both delicately shaped top notes and a booming barrel of a chest-voice.
The work of the chorus of Radio France is energetic, blended, and accurate throughout, though their text delivery lacks the clarity of a Germanophone group. As recordings of Zigeunerbaron have been remarkably sparse over the years, it is easy to welcome one that so warmly blends the frisson of live performance with the precision of carefully considered studio production. Not to be missed.
Christopher Williams, FANFARE