Lehar: Tatjana

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Lehar
LABELS: CPO
WORKS: Tatjana
PERFORMER: Dagmar Schellenberger, Herbert Lippert, Karsten Mewes; Berlin RSO & Chorus/ Michail Jurowski
CATALOGUE NO: 999 762-2
Lehár’s first full-length work was a gloomy tragedy of doomed love and penal servitude set in Siberia and called Kukushka, a far cry from the frothy Viennese confections with which he made his name. Premiered in Leipzig in 1896, it never established a place in the repertoire. And bar the odd revival and a new name – in Brno in 1905 he rechristened it Tatjana, perhaps in the hope that audiences might assume it was after Pushkin – it languished largely forgotten until DeutschlandRadio Berlin exhumed it and made this recording.

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Whatever its flaws, it’s a vastly engaging work: gloriously Romantic, shamelessly schmaltzy, richly melodic and pantomimically unsubtle. With its Wagnerian bombast, Slavonic folk tunes and magpie references to other operas – from Fidelio (there’s an over-the-top prisoners’ chorus to welcome spring) to Manon Lescaut (substitute cold for heat, and the taiga for the desert, and the finale is a rehash of Puccini’s) – it has the makings of a camp classic.

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But this is not to deride it. The score, with its portentous ostinato strings, is strikingly atmospheric, particularly in the preludes and forceful pre-finale blizzard interlude, thanks to superlative, no-holds-barred playing from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. And there are some terrific performances from the soloists, especially Herbert Lippert in the taxing high-tenor role of the ardent anti-hero Alexis and Karsten Mewes as his nemesis Sasha. Only Dagmar Schellenberger as Tatjana disappoints, communicating high emotion with faltering vibrato and sounding much too mimsy to convince us she’s the sort to set out alone across the steppe to save her man. Claire Wrathall