Johann Strauss Jr.: “Der Carneval in Rom.” Isabella Ma-Zach, Jessica Glatte, Michael Heim, Manfred Equiluz, Marcus Gunzel, Bernd Konnes; Chor und Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Johann Strauss Jr.: “Die Gottin der Vernunft.” Veronika Groiss, Manfred Equiluz, Kirlianit Cortes, Franz Fodinger, Isabella Ma-Zach, Wolfgang Veith, Eva-Maria Kumpfmuller, Andreas Mittermeier; Chorus of students from the Vienna Private University Conservatory and Slovak Sinfonietta, Zilina, conducted by Christian Pollack. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Both early and late in his works for the stage, Johann Strauss Jr. couldn’t seem to catch a break. The second of his 15 completed operettas, “Der Carneval in Rom,” and the last of them, “Die Gottin der Vernunft” (“The Goddess of Reason”), both show why.
Strauss’s basic problem was that he tended to write wonderful dance music and then overlay text and characters on it — which is what critics said about his first operetta, “Indigo und die vierzig Rauber.” Strauss realized after “Indigo” that he needed more of a plot, but his predilection was still for writing about parties, gaiety and joy. A natural solution seemed to be setting an operetta at Carnival, that often-wild pre-Lenten festival in which ranks were reversed and morals were loosened. Hence “Der Carneval in Rom,” a comedy of manners centering on artists, including one who has jilted his sweetheart and another who isn’t very good and therefore buys paintings from others and passes them off as his own. Throw in a countess with a wandering eye and her jealous husband, and you have the plot framework.
But the carnival itself does not occur until the very end of the work. And in CPO’s recording, the count and countess (Manfred Equiluz and Jessica Glatte) are more interesting than the central painter (a rather bland Michael Heim) and the country girl who dresses as a boy to journey to Rome and reclaim him (a somewhat timid-sounding Isabella Ma-Zach). Ernst Theis leads the work with real spirit: “Der Carneval in Rom” is as filled with polkas as “Indigo” had been with waltzes. But it took Strauss one more try to make a party an operetta’s central event — in his next stage work, “Die Fledermaus.”
Near the end of his life, Strauss had had only one other big theatrical hit, “Der Zigeunerbaron.” He wrote “Die Gottin der Vernunft” under duress: One librettist was a lawyer and insisted on Strauss fulfilling the contract even though the composer did not like the story, which is set during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and based loosely on the atheistic Cult of Reason created then. The work’s military parody looks back to Offenbach’s “La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein” (Strauss’s Colonel Furieux sounds like Offenbach’s General Boum-Boum) and ahead to Puccini’s “Turandot” (there are three secret police named Chalais, Balais and Calais — like Puccini’s Ping, Pang and Pong).
Here the predominant musical form is the march, and there are several really good ones. But Ma-Zach, in another central role (as a folk singer who rather racily portrays the Goddess of Reason), is again a bit too restrained, although Veronika Groiss makes a fine endangered aristocrat and Equiluz blusters effectively as Furieux. Christian Pollack, who meticulously reconstructed the score — which had lain in a basement for more than a century — leads it with polish and a sure hand. But despite some individually effective numbers (the first two finales are especially good), “Die Gottin der Vernunft” is not at Strauss’s highest level. Its Hussars should probably have gone to a party.
Estren is a freelance writer.