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An effective and enjoyable operaOct. 17 2015
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The music of Hermann Wolfgang von Waltershausen (1882-1954) isn’t often encountered these days. In fact, he seems to have lived a rather humble life and, although he apparently had some influence over the musical life in his native Munich, does not seem to have tried too hard to achieve much beyond that. His opera Oberst Chabert, completed in 1912, was nevertheless quite successful (so much so that there does, in fact, exist an alternative recording from 1956 with Julius Patzak among the cast, issued by Walhall – I have not heard it) and certainly his greatest hit; it was even performed internationally but WWI but an effective stopper to any possibility it might have had for entering any kind of standard repertoire. You might have noticed that Waltershausen’s dates “(1882-1954)” are also the dates of Walter Braunfels, another composer who continued to write in what is essentially a late-romantic style, but Waltershausen’s music is even more conservative and apparently remained that way throughout his career. Certainly the language of Oberst Chabert is heavily indebted to Wagner and Liszt, with a touch of Italian opera (Catalani and Puccini); much of it could pass for Richard Strauss, some of it as Franz Schmidt or Korngold, but it is also a more conservative overall than any of these latter three composers.
The story is a relatively free adaptation of Balzac’s novel – the characters’ motivations are different and so are the outcomes. It is, in fact, a rather moving story in this adaptation (though it has become more standardly operatic), and at 100 minutes, it is also a relatively compact and dramatically effective one. Musically, Waltershausen doesn’t quite manage to achieve anything like the brilliance of Strauss or Korngold, but he is a skilled orchestrator with some fine, even memorable themes and some spectacularly good ideas. In fact, the quality of the music improves as things proceed – in the first act, he seems mostly to present ideas and fragments that on their own sound disparate, and which together makes the act seem meandering and wayward without anything really memorable happening musically; but then things pick up as the ideas are developed and brought together, and much of the third act is magnificent – not to mention the quintet at the end of the second act. It is, I suppose, a dangerous game, but if you feel like sampling this set before making a decision just listening from the beginning will not give you the right impression. I won’t say that it’s a masterpiece, but it is a very impressive work overall, and I would definitely like to hear more of Waltershausen’s output.
The performances are generally very good – at least Bo Skovhus is dependably excellent and dramatically hugely effective. Manuela Uhl is also very good – she may score higher on drama than on sublime beauty of tone, but that’s also the right emphasis in a work like this. The rest of the cast is good if not outstanding and the orchestral performances by the Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra under Jacques Lacombe generally very effective – clear textures and dramatic involvement, though not in the end ideally lush or opulent. That caveat is unfortunately exacerbated by the engineering; the sound is quite dry, which, although it keeps the textures clear, does to an extent undermine the kinds of effects I think the composer was often going for. We do get full texts and English translations and good notes, as usual with cpo. Overall, and despite a few shortcomings, a highly recommendable affair.