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Lehár: Der Rastelbinder
Franz Lehar, Hans Graf, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Lehár: Der Rastelbinder
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (18) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (18) - Disc #2


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Lehár's Jewish Operetta
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 11/06/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)

"This release of a 1981 Austrian Radio production of Lehár's 'Der Rastelbinder' is historically interesting, as well as being a superior performance. But I must provide a warning to anyone thinking of buying it: The set contains no libretto and although there is a very good German/English/French synopsis provided there is so much dialog in German, or rather in the Viennese dialect, that following the story is difficult. I have a fairly good working knowledge of standard German but was often at sea. Further, there are smatterings of Yiddish and what I take to be Slovakian. That said, this operetta contains some of Lehár's most attractive music.

'Der Rastelbinder' ('The Tinker,' not 'The Tinker's Apprentice' as the booklet has it; a tinker was a itinerant pedlar who fixed household objects, sold things like pots and pans and other domestic goods) was premièred in 1902, one of Lehár's earliest productions and indeed it may actually be his first operetta (as opposed to comic opera). It was very unusual in that one of the main characters, indeed the glue that holds the plot together, is a Jew. This was virtually a first on the Viennese musical stage. And certainly it was a first for a Jew portrayed onstage to be a kind-hearted, philosophic, honest and good man. Prior to that in anti-Semitic Vienna Jews had been presented as comic figures, wheedling, cheating, not-quite-human. True, Lessing's 'Nathan the Wise' was also known in Vienna but a 'good Jew' was otherwise unknown in literature, the spoken stage and certainly in musical theater. Lehár's librettist Victor Léon, himself a Jew, was very worried that the operetta would be a colossal failure. Much to everyone's surprise, it became a huge hit. One reason for this may be that the theater in which it played abutted Vienna's Jewish quarter, Leopoldstadt, and undoubtedly Jewish patrons flocked to the production, but it is clear that the general run of Viennese were charmed, too, and this production and those that followed rang up almost 3000 performances by the end of World War I. (Obviously it was banned when Hitler took office but was so popular that an 'Aryanized' version was commissioned. It is notable that this 1981 production returns to the original version portraying the Jewish main character in an entirely positive light, perhaps an effort of Austrian State Radio to right a wrong in some small way.) Louis Treumann, the singing actor who portrayed the Jewish protagonist Wolf Bär Pfefferkorn, had a personal triumph and it launched him on a very successful career. (OK, the name of the character 'Wolf Bär Pfefferkorn' ['Wolf Bear Peppercorn'] is comical but the role as written, although comic, is filled with humanity and very little stereotype.)

The operetta is in a Prolog and Two Acts. The Prolog takes place in a village in the Carpathians (in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia) twelve years before the following acts. In it the boy Janku, about to set out as an apprentice to a itinerant tinker, is betrothed to his 8-year-old foster-sister, Suza, with the understanding that after he returned from his training many years later they would be married. I listened to this act the first time without having read the booklet and I could have sworn that it was a sibling to Smetana's 'The Bartered Bride,' and then I remembered that Lehár had studied, before he moved to Vienna, with Smetana and Fibich. The prolog is filled with folksong-like melodies, many of which have a Slavic sound to them, and the introductory song by Pfefferkorn has a strong melismatic resemblance to Jewish folksong. Neatly done, all of it, by Lehár.

Act I and II take place in Vienna twelve years on. Janku, now calling himself Schani, has finished his apprenticeship but is now working for a tinsmith in Vienna. He has completely forgotten about his childhood betrothal and is in love with his boss's daughter, Mizzi (Mitzi). Who should show up but Pfefferkorn with Suza in tow, thinking that Janku/Schani and Suza will be delighted to meet again and get on with the business of getting married. But, without his awareness, Suza has fallen in love with a boy from back home, Milosch, who has in the meantime joined the Uhlan Guards in Vienna. So, the affianced pair, who don't even remember each other, are more than a little flustered by Pfefferkorn's act of 'kindness.' (Along the way Pfefferkorn states his underlying philosophy which is 'An act of kindness is its own reward.') Complications arise, of course, and meanwhile some absolutely gorgeous music ensues.

In Act II the credibility of Léon's plot really begins to fall apart, but this is at least partly because in order to feed the huge appetite of the Viennese public for military music and uniforms, it is set in the Uhlans' headquarters, and the two girls involved (Suza and Mizzi) have, for really lame reasons, gotten dressed up in military garb. Well, you get the idea. The main point is that all comes out right in the end, Pfefferkorn sees the innocent error of his ways but delights that things have worked out, even if not as he'd expected, and he repeats, as a mantra to the young people, 'Das is' ein einfache Rechnung, mei Kind, vergess nit, auch Wohltun trägt dir Zinsen, das is' der rechte Profit,' which can be roughly translated as 'It's a simple calculation, my children, don't forget it: A good deed brings both interest and profit.'

Several selections from 'Der Rastelbinder' are reasonably well-known because they have been recorded many times by such singers as Richard Tauber. Particularly famous is the luscious waltz duet 'Wenn zwei sich lieben' ('When two so love') and Janku's aria 'Ich bin ein Wiener Kind' ('I am a Viennese child'). But other highlights are the nostalgic and dreamy 'Erinnerungs-Terzett' ('The Memory Trio') sung by Pfefferkorn, Janku and Suza, and Pfefferkorn's entrance song 'A jeder Mensch, was handeln tut' ('Each man must take care of things') done spectacularly here by the Viennese actor/singer (not operatic), Fritz Muliar. The two male romantic leads are sung beautifully by leading tenors of the time Heinz Zednik (Janku/Schani) and Adolf Dallapozza (Milosch); they're terrific in their Act I duet. They are equalled by the two sopranos who sing Suza (Elfie Hobarth, known then as Elfriede Höbarth) and Mizzi (Helga Papouschek).

The whole thing is under the expert direction of conductor Hans Graf who is now the conductor of the Houston Symphony. He directs the Austrian Radio Symphony and Chorus, as well as the Vienna Mozart Boy Choir (not the familiar Vienna Boychoir, but very good nonetheless). Suza and Janku as children are sung charmingly by two unnamed boys from the choir.

So, overall I found this to be an infectious release, one that I'll undoubtedly play again and again. I suspect, though, that when I do I'll program out the separately banded but extensive spoken dialog and go straight to Lehár's musical gems.

Scott Morrison"