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Reviews

Albert Lortzing: Der Waffenschmied
07 Aug 2005

LORTZING: Der Waffenschmied

Nineteenth-century German opera before Wagner is rarely performed in the United States, although it is still quite popular in Germany. While works by Spohr, Marschner, and Lortzing, among others, are very much a part of the repertory in many German houses, they are virtually unknown in America, and none of the above-mentioned composers is even mentioned in the index of the new seventh edition of the Burkholder-Grout-Palisca A History of Western Music. This new recording of Lortzing's Der Waffenschmied (The Armorer [of Worms]) suggests not only why this work is still performed. It also suggests that American audiences are missing out on a delightful body of work for the lyric stage. From Lortzing's relatively better-known works, such as Zar und Zimmermann or Der Wildschuetz, to works by Marschner, such as Der Vampyr, nineteenth-century German opera with spoken dialogue is often highly entertaining and musically satisfying, if one is not anticipating work of great gravitas. And who is always in the mood for Tristan und Isolde, masterpiece that it is?

Albert Lortzing: Der Waffenschmied

John Tomlinson, Ruth Ziesak, Boje Skovhus, Kjell Magnus Sandve, Ursula Kunz et al. The Bavarian Broadcast Chorus and the Broadcast Orchestra of Munich conducted by Leopold Hager.

Profil PH04081 [2CDs]

 

Lortzing was, as John Warrack has noted, "the most inventive composer of opera with spoken dialogue in mid-19th-century Germany," and his skills are evident in this wonderful performance. While Lortzing knew well the masters who preceded him - we can frequently hear traces of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and others, as well as French opera-comique and Italian buffa, in this and other scores - his approach and results were individual. Perhaps guided by a theatrical instinct cultivated by years spent acting, singing, and conducting for the stage, Lortzing was a fine craftsman and, by Der Waffenschmied, excellent orchestrator whose entertainments continue to please a wide range of German audiences.

The accompanying essay by Juergen Schlaeder — Marie Praeder provided the sometimes awkward translation — addresses Lortzing's praise of middle-class values in the work. While Count von Liebenau is of the elite class, for instance, it is under the disguise of an apprentice armorer that he wins the love of Marie, the daughter of Stadinger, the master armorer of the title. Stadinger is the character who embodies the steady middle-class values upheld in the work, and when, near the opera's end, he sings of what Schlaeder refers to as "the restoration of traditional ideas of morality," it is in a strophic folk-like song that would have appealed to the middle-class audience for the whom the work was intended. (The work premiered in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1846, however, and, as Warrack points out, the Viennese audience was less taken with the "homely and very German humor" than subsequent German audiences have been.) Sir John Tomlinson, a very highly regarded Wagnerian specialist, brings a remarkable vocal presence to this folk-like Lied, as Lortzing calls it, as well as a fine sense of character and style throughout. It's rather like Hans Sachs lite, and it's more than rather nice.

The other standout vocal performance is by soprano Ruth Ziesak as Marie. While she may fall short of the exceptional insight and warmth that the late Lucia Popp brought to this kind of role (and everything else she sang), she comes close to it. The voice is rich and expressive, and Ziesak's performance of the aria that closes the Act 1 finale is a highlight of the recording. She also scores with the opening of Act 3, another extended aria for Marie, as she does in her duets with the Count (Boje Skovhus) and in the ensembles.

It is in the ensembles that Lortzing shines. The second act sextet is quite well written. It begins with an extended unison passage that blossoms into a passage reminiscent of Mozart; after this, its comic sensibility grows as the ensemble begins to sound more and more like refugees from Rossini. After the sextet, a duet for Stadinger and Georg, the Count's squire disguised as another apprentice, further demonstrates Lortzing's familiarity with the Italian buffa style: under Georg's lilting melody, Stadinger, the bass, sings a patter section, and the whole segment recalls Rossini's Figaro and Almaviva's Act 1 duet at the end of The Barber of Seville. The chorus is exceptionally good throughout, providing a subtlety and richness that at times surpasses the material. Its performance of "Wie herrlich ist's im Gruenen," a delightful chorus in Act 2, is particularly satisfying, both in how it's written and in how it's performed. The finales to each act are also especially effective.

The CD's sound is above average, although the louder ensemble passages suffer a bit. Overall, however, the engineering serves the work well. The booklet, in German and English, provides the essay mentioned above, an exploration of Lortzing's life and the work in terms of their demonstration of middle class values and perspectives. It provides next to nothing in terms of plot synopsis, however, although it does provide a breakdown of the tracks by title, character, and classification (aria, chorus, sextet, etc.).

I probably should have mentioned at the beginning of this review that I am a bit of a fan of this genre - my CD collection includes several works by each of the composers mentioned above, and while I have never seen any of them performed, I have no problem imagining why they remain popular in Germany. They are delightful, stage-worthy, and, at times, exuberant, works with much to offer. This recording would serve as a fine introduction to nineteenth-century German opera after von Weber and before Wagner. It is certainly a welcome addition to my collection.

Jim Lovensheimer, Ph.D.
Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University

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