Operetta Research Center
8 January, 2017
With Die Bajadere, Emmerich Kalman embarked on a new path as a composer in 1921: he changed his librettist team and began a collaboration with Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, he tried his hand at the new syncopated “jazz” rhythms that swept Europe in the post-WW1 years, he landed a mega-hit with his third act dance number “Fräulein, bitte woll’n Sie Shimmy tanzen,” and he indulged for the first time in up-to-date orientalism. His tenor hero is Prince Radjami of Lahore who falls madly in love with a Parisian actress playing a “Bajadere” – and tries to win her over by hypnotizing her and luring her with exotic music. All of this combined was powerful and novel stuff, and Kalman landed one of the greatest hits of his career with Die Bajadere. The show went onto nearly every theater in the German, Italian, Spanish, French and English speaking world. Even Broadway got to see The Yankee Princess at the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1922, with sets by Joseph Urban and “electrical effects” by Tony Greshoff. Now, there finally is a modern full scale recording from Cologne, conducted by Richard Bonynge.
Bonynge has shown interest in oriental operas in the past, recording rarities such as Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore and Esclarmonde with his late wife, Joan Sutherland. The more voluptuously romantic “Indian” music in Bajadere, that burns like a bewitching magic fire, sounds suitably opulent in the new recording with the WDR Funkorchester Köln. Especially the many modern instrumental effects – Kalman’s use of xylophones, drums, tam-tams etc. – shine in this new CD version, like a dark-hued sound carpet over which the soloists can pour out their voices.
Sadly, Rainer Trost’s Radjami is a cultivated Mozart tenor. He never sounds seductive in any of his music, and he certainly does not have the vocal capacities to make the top notes in this score soar in a way that would make any hypnotic effect on Odette (or the audience) believable. Also, in the dialogue scenes (which are reduced to a minimum) he sounds so stilted and unimaginative that it’s downright embarrassing. Even for a tenor! Which sort of kills the central aspect of this operetta: its attempt to take the listener on a journey to far-away lands and the erotic frizzle between Odette and the “foreign” Prince.
Heike Susanne Daum in the title role tries, often in surprising and unexpected ways, to deliver something like a characterization.
When she does, she is really fascinating and convincing. But on the whole her voice often sounds uneven and shaky. I wonder if she was recorded at various times, because her great moments are so different to the other episodes. She posesses a bright young soubrette voice, but without that over-the-top glamour that Gitta Alpar brought to her interpretation. So if you know Alpar’s “Rosen aus Djeipur,” you’ll have difficulty listening to Daum singing this expansive waltz melody with its alluring upward swings.
Still, the romantic numbers Daum and Trost share are far better recorded here than in the English language version from the Ohio Light Opera, where all soloists seem to have been so hypnotized that they are half-asleep. (However, there is more connecting dialogue on the Ohio discs.)
As mentioned, there is another side to this operetta: the modern syncopated dance numbers, sung by Marietta and her two suitors, Napoleon St. Cloche and Louis Philipp. Ideally, you need typical Broadway character actors to pull off the fun of this ménage à trois, which also demonstrated a break-away from old fashioned pre-WW1 relationship models. In Cologne, they cast three full-blown opera singers with heavy voices: Anke Vondung, Stephan Genz (Napoleon), and Miljenko Turk (Louis Philipp). The bouncy hits they get to sing sound so laden and stiff that you wonder what possessed the casting director of the WDR to hire such performers for these roles.
On top of this, Bonynge doesn’t seem to have any idea that syncopated operetta dance numbers from the 1920s need a different “style” than the romantic numbers. Here, it all sounds the same. Which takes a lot of contrast and effectiveness out of the story and score. The surprising low-point of the recording is the most famous number of them all, the aforementioned shimmy of act 3. This a-minor “marcatissimo” whirlwind is performed by Vondung and Turk at minimum speed. Even though its marked as “langsam, bequem” in the piano score, there should be some uplifting feel to the refrain. And it would have been desirable to pay some attention to the witty lyrics – and this includes the joke about “jazz” music being “Jewish” music, which Brammer and Grünwald, like Kalman of Jewish decent, make self-ironic fun of. (“Früher tanzten es die Botokuden, jetzt sieht man es bei den feinten – Leuten.” Kalman actually puts a pause before “Leuten”; Bonynge and his soloists ignore that and sing straight through it.
On the whole, this cpo double-disc – based on a live performance in February 2014 at the Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal in Cologne – is far better than many of the other operetta issues on that label, especially the recordings from Bad Ischl. This Bajadere is also far superior to the OLO two-disc version on Newport Classic, where hardly an exotic instrument can be heard under the direction of conductor J. Lynn Thompson. Probably because the small orchestra in Wooster does not include such instruments. The “classic” 1970s Hungarian highlight version has not been released on CD yet, which is a pity because there is some vibrant singing and orchestral playing to be found there. There’s also a newer DVD version from Budapest with Attila Dolhai as a stunning looking Radjami. (The “rock” style tenors-in-jeans-production, with fantasy “Third Reich” uniforms for the various soldier friends of the prince, is visually a matter of taste and might not be everyone’s cup of tea, as persuasive as Dolhai might be. You can watch the full performance on YouTube.)
All of it is surpassed, ultimately, by the one track Gitta Alpar recorded with Herbert Ernst Groh. They demonstrate what might have been … if they had ever gotten around to a full recording. You really need an Alpar and Groh or Tauber to make this music shine.
By the way, on the disc Kalman Conducts Kalman, issued by the Operetta Foundation in Los Angeles, Kalman himself conducts orchestral sections from Bajadere/The Yankee Princess with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York, 1940. With Alpar as his soloists of choice. When you compare the overwhelming dramatic impetus Kalman brings to the Bajadere music with Bonynge in 2014, you realize just how many possibilities the modern maestro did not use. But: this disc is probably the one Kalman fans will be stuck with for the next couple of years, decades even. So enjoy it as best as you can. If you listen closely, you might even notice Kalman’s daughter Yvonne in the small role of the theater director’s wife.