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CD review: CPO's 'Der Obersteiger'

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Carl Zeller: "Der Obersteiger." Bürgi, Zink, et al. Herbert Mogg conducts the chorus and orchestra of the Musiktheater Schönbrunn (CPO, 2 CDs)

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Here is a delightful recording that shows why operetta charms so many despite its manifest absurdities. The plot of Carl Zeller's "Der Obersteiger" ("The Foreman") is utterly incoherent; and the title character, whose name is Martin (tenor Bernhard Berchtold), is so unsympathetic that it scarcely matters when he goes from rabble-rouser to impoverished band director to a hurdy-gurdy man who has lost everything.

Confusingly, this 1894 work -- designed by Zeller to cash in on the popularity of his one big hit, 1891's "Der Vogelhändler" -- has three mismatched but eventually properly joined couples rather than operetta's usual two: Martin and the wholesome lacemaker Nelly (soprano Anna Siminska); mine director Zwack (tenor Wolfgang-Müller Lorenz) and his wife, Elfriede (soprano Donna Ellen); and two disguised nobles: Prince Roderich (tenor Santiago Bürgi) and Comtesse Fichtenau (soprano Cornelia Zink).

But the music is simply lovely. There are almost no tunes that are not memorable, and conductor Herbert Mogg, who seems to specialize in making obscure operettas sound great, is excellent. The operetta's one big hit is "Wo sie war die Müllerin," a strophic ditty that completely stops the action in the middle of the finale of Act II (much as the "prince and princess" song would do a decade later in Franz Lehár's "The Merry Widow"). But other songs are equally good: "Die Forstrat fährt auf Commission," in which Zwack explains that the bureaucrat does his duty "from nine to one but not afterwards" (again, think of "The Merry Widow," where Count Danilo says much the same thing); the duet "Ich wollte, dass mein Gatte wär," in which the prince and comtesse trade marital expectations; and the delicious terzettino, "Ein Ball ist sozusagen," in which the comtesse, Elfriede and Nelly perfectly encapsulate the way women in operettas hunt for and trap their men.

Great music? Certainly not. Not even great operetta. But what a light and creamy confection this is, just right for a couple of hours' escape from the mundane cares of the 19th century -- or the 21st.

-- Mark J. Estren

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