J Strauss: Simplicius

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: J Strauss
LABELS: Arthaus
ALBUM TITLE: J Strauss
WORKS: Simplicius
PERFORMER: Martin Zysset, Oliver Widmer, Martina Janková, Louise Martini; Zürich Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst; dir. David Pountney (Zürich, 1999)
CATALOGUE NO: 100 364
This scarcely-known work (1887, revised 1894) by the Waltz King had little success in his lifetime. Perhaps it dismayed early audiences with a book (derived from a 17th-century novel set during the Thirty Years War) that was far more serious than anything regularly met with under the heading of operetta. For such was Strauss’s designation, though we might think it closer to comic opera. Occasionally the shifts in musical style from Strauss’s characteristic marches and dance tunes to grand ensembles and soul-searching monologues jar slightly, but the invention is of such quality throughout that they’re perfectly forgivable.

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It’s a fascinating piece, and David Pountney’s spectacular Zürich production, with flamboyant designs by Johann Engels, relishes the challenges of the work and supplies amusing and/or grotesque visuals to articulate the plot and its characters.

Simplicius himself is an innocent of the Parsifal type, whose hermit father was once a nobleman. There is a family fortune in store, though a motley crew of soldiers, adventurers, astrologers and camp followers are met with on the long journey towards it. The title role is taken with vivid physicality by Martin Zysset, with Oliver Widmer memorable as Melchior the astrologer, and Louise Martini striking as the almost Brechtian figure of alcohol-purveyor to the Schnapslotte, whose vivacious daughter Tilly (Martina Janková) wins Simplicius’s heart.

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Franz Welser-Möst conducts with enormous style. Any Strauss fan should explore this, though they’re going to be in for some surprises, both musical and visual (a CD version on EMI was reviewed in October 2000).