For a period of thirty years up until the mid-Eighties, EMI produced a magnificent series of recordings of the classical Viennese operettas, featuring some of the finest singers of the time. In most of them the leading tenor roles were sung by Nicolai Gedda, proving himself to be as masterly in Lehár as in Bach, Schubert, Bellini, and Tchaikovsky. It is good to see these vintage recordings reappearing.
Carl Millöcker, one of the foremost 19th-century Viennese composers of operetta, scored his greatest successes with Der Bettelstudent (1882) and Gasparone (1884). In The Beggar Student, set in 18th-century Krakow, the beautiful young aristocrat Laura is tricked into marrying Symon, a penniless student, thinking that he is a wealthy prince.
Colonel Ollendorf, who is behind all this trickery, is given the operetta’s most popular number, the lilting ‘Ach, ich hab’ sie noch nur auf die Schulter geküsst’, and Hermann Prey delivers it very suavely. Gedda brings great verve and an immaculate sense of style to the title role, and Rita Streich is a sparkling Laura. Franz Allers is the impeccable conductor. Gasparone is musically even richer than Der Bettelstudent. Its action takes place in Sicily, where a band of smugglers invent a brigand, Gasparone, to whom they attribute all the crimes of the neighbourhood.
A complex plot still finds room for a pair of lovers who, of course, rise above all misunderstandings to arrive at a happy ending. The soprano heroine this time is the engaging Anneliese Rothenberger, and her beloved, a mysterious stranger who has his reasons for posing as the notorious brigand, is Hermann Prey again, at his best in the love song ‘Dunkelrote Rosen’.
The great genius of 20th-century Viennese operetta was Franz Lehár, whose later works were composed for his friend Richard Tauber. Nicolai Gedda, the undisputed inheritor of Tauber’s mantle, sings the leading tenor roles in three of the four Lehár operettas. In The Count of Luxemburg he is René, the profligate count who agrees, for a sum of money, to marry a commoner, thus raising her to noble rank and making her eligible for a subsequent marriage to a Russian prince.
Gedda’s partner here is the delectable Lucia Popp, and a strong supporting cast includes Kurt Böhme as Prince Basil. Willy Mattes conducts an exhilarating account of Lehár’s richly melodic score. Mattes is also the conductor of the immensely popular The Land of Smiles. Nicolai Gedda sings the Tauber role of the Chinese prince whose love for Lisa, the daughter of a Viennese count, ends disastrously.
Anneliese Rothenberger is Lisa, but this opera belongs to the tenor, whom Lehár gives some of his most glorious melodies to sing, among them the famous ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’, which Gedda delivers with great fervour, throwing in at the song’s reprise in Act II an unwritten, but irresistible high C sharp. Renate Holm and Harry Friedauer are splendid as a second pair of lovers, who provide the light relief. Friederike, which weaves a fictional plot around the character of the poet Goethe (sung by Adolf Dallapozza) contains a delightful setting of Goethe’s ‘Heidenröslein’, while Giuditta, which aspires to the status of opera, has Gedda again in the Tauber role, partnered by Edda Moser.
In performance and in sound, all these operetta recordings are absolutely first-rate: five stars are not enough.