20 Apr 2006


Albert Lortzing has suffered much lately. Artistically speaking, he is somewhat moribund. In a recent article in the German operatic magazine, Orpheus, one writer rightfully complained that the once so popular composer has almost disappeared from the German theatres.

Even in the sixties, his operas were played all over the German-speaking countries, while nowadays one has to look carefully to find a performance. The reasons are twofold. “Das Regie-Theater” has little attraction for Lortzing’s well-crafted, very romantic “Spielopern”— too civilized, too polite, too simple, not enough blood and adultery so that one can shock spectators. Nowadays, as directors dictate what a general manager may or may not put on the boards, there is no place for him. Secondly, a cynical age such as ours, with cynical people all over the place, no longer has room for the gentle characters of Lortzing or for operas that are deeply drenched in the days of late feudal customs and small German states.

For most of his life, Lortzing lived in abject poverty—while everywhere his operas were enthusiastically performed in those days without author’s rights—he had to stoop to his audiences and to perform what they liked or thought decent. This Undine is a fine example. It’s almost the same story as Dvořák’s better-known Rusalka, which is largely based on the Undine story. But Rusalka premièred in 1901, 56 years after Lortzing’s opera, in an age when artistic freedom had already some real meaning and author’s rights were a source of income. So, Dvořák could keep the legend intact and have his prince kiss the water nymph whereupon he dies. Lortzing, too, preferred such a finale for his opera; but his audiences wanted a happy ending. Therefore, the composer acquiesced to their wishes and Undine ends with a rather sugary end: the prince kisses the nymph and accompanies his love for eternity into her water world.

The performance under review was recorded for a radio performance on the classical German music channel and appeared not long after on the Capriccio label in full price version. This less expensive reissue, however, has no libretto, just a short summary. This recording has only one rival, recorded exactly forty-years ago; but what a competitor it is. The cast of the EMI recording speaks for itself: Gedda, Rothenberg, Prey, Schreier, Frick. To be somewhat blunt, almost none of the singers on this issue are on the same level as their elders. This is especially true in the soprano department. Both ladies here sing well, but without much charm or individuality. Both are a little bit shrill and one has constantly to look at the sleeve notes to know who is exactly singing. Pütz and Rothenberger have better and more distinct voices on the EMI-recording.

The gentlemen fare somewhat better. Protschka has a good lyric voice, seeminlgy destined to become the great German lyric tenor that somehow has never materialized. But, he almost matches Nicolai Gedda’s Ritter Hugo on EMI. His voice is not on the same level. Yet, there is the feeling for this kind of music he probably knew well from his youth that is somewhat lacking in the Swede's interpretation, who probably recorded while looking for the first time at his score. Incidentally, there is a story that Gedda was flown in at the last moment as a substitute for Fritz Wunderlich who had recorded a magnificent Der Wildschütz by the same composer. Only his tragic death prevented him from recording Undine. This is not true. The EMI-recording was finished on the 6th of September 1966, while Wunderlich died exactly 11 days later. On the Capriccio recording, baritone John Janssen sings a noble and convincing water ghost Kühleborn, and he yields nothing to EMI’s Hermann Prey—high praise indeed. Undine has one common trait with Giordano’s La Cena delle Beffe—the best known aria, a wonderful melodious tenor piece, belongs to the second tenor. On record no one equals Wunderlich’s interpretation in a solo album; but neither Peter Schreier (EMI) nor Heinz Kruse (Capriccio) is mellifluous enough. Andreas Schmidt and Günter Wewel do well, but who can nowadays compete with Gotlob Frick?

This performance has one big advantage: its completeness. It contains some extra choruses lacking on the EMI, it gives us, finally, the fine ballet and it provides some additional dialogue as well. Conductor Kurt Eichhorn is one of the last maestri who can honour this kind of romantic piece and he succeeds in giving us a fine interpretation, never pushing his singers but not indulging in sentimentality either.

If you want to leave Verdi and Puccini for a while and discover a wonderful melodious score, you would do well to purchase this issue. Maybe Lortzing is old fashioned in the theatre, but on records he still holds his own. In the meantime, you will discover that Engelbert Humperdinck and Siegfried Wagner found a lot of inspiration from him. Should you be able to read German, I can only advise to buy Lortzing—Gaukler und Musiker by Jürgen Lodemann (Steidl Verlag, Göttingen). It is one of the best researched biographies of a composer I have ever read. It tells us a lot about the horrible artistic conditions Lortzing had to live with and it illustrates in great detail how miserable, poor, honest and caring for his wife and his eleven children Lortzing was—he buried 5 of them. He himself died only at 50-years of age, a composer, who until the seventies, was the most performed operatic genius in Germany after Verdi and Mozart.

Jan Neckers