About this Recording
8.660434-35 - STRAUSS II, J.: Blindekuh [Operetta] (R. Davidson, Kunkle, Bortolotti, Sofia Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, Salvi)
English 

Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)
Blindekuh

 

First performance: 18 December 1878, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.

The composition of Johann Strauss’s sixth operetta was delayed by the death of his first wife Jetty (Henriette) and his immediate marriage to Angelika Diettrich, who was 30 years his junior. The work appeared four years after Die Fledermaus (‘The Bat’, 1874), and followed on two other operettas: Cagliostro in Wien (‘Cagliostro in Vienna’, 1875) and Prinz Methusalem (‘Prince Methuselah’, 1877). The overture was aired earlier at a charity concert. Although the operetta itself was not well received, and taken off after 16 performances, the overture remained in the repertoire of the Strauss orchestras and the military bands. Blindekuh (literally ‘blind cow’), is the German term for the game of ‘blind man’s buff’. This work languished neglected, the least known of Strauss’s operettas, before being revived by Dario Salvi and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in January 2019.

The anthologies of symphonic pieces that Strauss, as usual, drew from his operettas, kept many of the melodies known:

Blindekuh, overture
Kennst du mich?, waltz Op. 381
Pariser-Polka, French polka Op. 382
Nur fort!, quick polka Op. 383
Opern-Maskenball-Quadrille Op. 384
Waldine, polka-mazurka Op. 385

The beautiful waltz Kennst du mich? (‘Do you know me?’) featured a principal melody that became especially famous because Ralph Benatzky arranged it for soprano and choir and incorporated it in his operetta-pastiche Casanova, as the Nuns’ Chorus (recorded by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Hilde Gueden and Joan Sutherland).

While lacking the touch of genius revealed in Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, the dazzling melodic vein of Blindekuh makes it hard to understand the initial failure of the work. This must be explained by circumstances other than the quality of the music. Indeed, the Viennese newspaper Neue freie Presse ascribed the lack of success to the mediocre quality of the somewhat confusing libretto, which dragged down the music ‘of a talented artist like Johann Strauss’. The librettist was the German dramatist Rudolf Kneisel (Königsberg 1832–Berlin 1899), an almost exact contemporary of the composer. His twelve plays, usually comedies and farces, appeared all over Germany between 1860 (Eine Zeitungsente, Frankfurt) and 1894 (Sie weiss etwas, Leipzig).

Strauss alternates captivating waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, and marches (like the one that ends Act I). The climax the work is the Finale to Act II, which features the superb waltz whose grave principal motif, heard at the end of the overture, captivates when the beguiling melody is repeated in chorus on the words ‘Blindekuh, Blindekuh!…’

The overture is built out of themes from the Act II ensemble (CD 2  3 ), Act I march finale (CD 1  9 ), and the Act II waltz finale (CD 2  8 ). The piece was described by a commentator as a game of blind man’s buff between a teasing polka and a roguish waltz, the two staple dance rhythms of the operetta genre.

The score reflects the scenario of pastoral comedy, with a delicate tinge of social burlesque. This is prefigured in the opening chorus and couplets, where the three prominent guests and their families all arrive, proclaiming their unique identity and importance to the same strophic melody and construction. The couplets for cheeky Johann present a comic figure, a servant and hence a social outsider. The tenorino Fach emphasises this vulnerability. The duettino for Waldine and Elvira uses the bel canto topos of two female voices singing in rapturous interaction.

The two successive couplets for the mainstream hero Hellmuth reinforce his nodal position for the narrative, each revealing differing aspects of his character and dramatic purpose. The first, in his real character, confirms his genuine love for Waldine, especially when his protestations resolve into a serene waltz melody, the sure sign of a beneficent intention. His second couplets must reflect his assumed persona as the American cousin, and couch his enthusiastic description of life in the USA as a perky polka, in the manner of the railway and holidays pieces composed by Joseph and Eduard Strauss.

The Act I finale is constructed on a Mozartian modal (Act II of Le nozze di Figaro), with a sequence of key, temporal and metrical changes as each stage of the intrigue progresses: Allegro 2/4; Allegro vivo 3/8; Allegretto 3/3 (interpolated couplets ‘So sind Sie nicht der Bräutigam’); Moderato 2/4; Allegro vivo 3/4; Allegro moderato 2/4 (‘Der Herr der da steht’); Tempo di marcia 4/4 (‘Arm in Arm wird jetzt marchiert’). It represents an apotheosis realised in march form, but comically undercut by the parody of progressing to the lavish meal on offer.

The opening chorus of Act II captures the idyllic atmosphere of the park, with Johann’s slightly wistful couplets intensifying the feeling. The following ensemble sustains this mood, with the striking 4/4 theme from the overture strengthening the musical line. Conversely the duet for the two ostensible tenor rivals captures the lighthearted mood in the manner of Eisenstein and Dr Falke in Die Fledermaus. Kragel in his couplets presents the fourth tenor role, typical of the comic persona created by Josef Josephi and Alexander Girardi, especially in the fleet unison passages.

The character of Betsy dominates the second half of the scenario, her couplets establishing her soubrette nature, reflected in the delicate filigree writing and restrained coloratura. This is emphasised in the conversational flow of the succeeding trio, with its fluent unison writing.

The Act II finale echoes the structural ambition and control of the conclusion to Act I. It is dominated by the waltz form, its refreshing melodic sequences fixing the swirling mood, capturing the giddy game of blind man’s buff, with its confusion and deception. The famous Blindekuh melody appears briefly at the beginning, recurs in various guises, before eventually emerging in fullness and resolution with coloratura counterpointing to bring the act to a splendid highpoint.

Act III opens with a brilliant cotillion, the fast sequence then taken up by the chorus to exhilarating effect. The succeeding trio is a fine example of the trope of mock terror, the shuddering temolos, diminshed sevenths, consistently undercut by the comedic unison refrains, as all reflect on the imminent threat of Raubmord (murderous robbery). The following buffo quartet is a rondo based on ensemble singing, characterised by a suave waltz theme, interspersed by conversational exchanges that all resolve in the 3/4 theme.

Betsy’s Kissing Couplets are characteristically delicate in her comedy mode, with hesitant fermate. The finale is brief in the operetta tradition, resuming the opening theme of the overture, a new waltz motif, the return of Betsy’s song, and culminating in the reprise of the beautiful Blind Man’s Buff waltz with its brilliant soprano top line.

The work is performed in concert version without dialogue. All singers engage with intelligence, finesse and warmth. The conductor Dario Salvi has recreated the dazzling music with attention to performing traditions, ‘breathing’ the right tempi against the current trend to rush, and conversely without ever forcing the pace by intervening restraints and self-conscious nuances. He draws the composer’s bright tones from the orchestra, leading his singers to vivify this evocative and seductive music.

Synopsis

CD 1

 1  Overture

Act I

Vestibule of an elegant country house with lawn, figures, flower pots, richly ornamented.

 2  The opera opens in the country estate of Herr Scholle (bass-baritone), a rich landowner. Guests are arriving for a grand party organised by Scholle and his wife Arabella (soprano). Scholle prepares to receive a nephew from America to whom his daughter Waldine, born of his first marriage, was promised while still a child. Indeed, an indemnity of some $40,000 rests on the success this brokered nuptial arrangement.

 3  It is a lovely spring day and the scene is delightful—everyone is in their best attire, the servants run to the carriages to help the guests out, escorting and introducing them to Scholle. Everyone important in the constituency is there: barons, landowners, civil servants with their families, but also musicians and poets.

 4  One of the servants, Johann, sneakily goes from table to table sampling all the food available on the buffets: pheasants, grouse, venison, desserts and champagne! But he is also looking very attentively at the lovely ladies amongst the guests.

 5  One of them is the pretty Waldine (soprano), who has come to the party with her governess Elvira (mezzo). They are wandering around the gardens admiring the flowers and plants—a good opportunity for Elvira to give Waldine a lesson in botany! But despite all her best efforts Elvira cannot make Waldine concentrate on the scientific side of the lovely nature that surrounds them. Waldine’s imagination sees more in flowers than can be read in books—passion, grace and love. She dreams rather of romance, especially since she is attracted to a young man named Hellmuth.

 6  And of course, just as Waldine is lost in her admiration for all things beautiful, the dashing and daring Hellmuth (who calls himself Adolf, pretending to be a distant cousin of Waldine, whom she has never met), comes on the scene and kneels in front of her. He tells her to dissemble with him to settle the question of marriage to the cousin from America. Unsettled by the return of her stepmother Arabella, Waldine introduces Hellmuth as a man named Herr Meyer, who claims to be the agent of a Viennese jeweller sent to recover an outstanding debt. The spendthrift Arabella is disconcerted but the gallant ‘Meyer’ reassures her by kissing her hand. Herr Scholle surprises them but believes that his American nephew, Adolf Bothwell, has finally arrived.

 7  Adolf-Hellmuth is thus forced to invent elaborate and rather fanciful descriptions of America for his so-called uncle! Now one of the guests, Herr Kragel, secretary to the Courts of Justice and in charge of police duties (tenor), thinks he recognises in this ‘cousin’ a notorious and inveterate seducer.

 8  Elvira is worried and upset, as are all the other guests. The hosts themselves add to the confusion and try to work out who Hellmuth really is.

 9  Scholle and Arabella vainly seek to clarify the situation which becomes even more complicated. Johann tries to convince Scholle to challenge Hellmuth to a duel. The duel is suspended following a heated discussion when all (apart from Hellmuth) agree that he really is Herr Meyer! The confusion soon reaches fever pitch in a catchy march: the social situation does not prevent the guests from rushing happily to the well-stocked tables for breakfast.

CD 2

Act II

Park with statues, fountains, etc. To the left, the entrance of the country house, to the right, an arbour.

 1  The guests are disporting themselves in the sumptuous park, lined with statues and fountains.  2  Johann is also wandering in the garden, clearing the buffet tables, and taking in the vernal beauty that surrounds him.

 3  Suddenly Waldine, together with several lady friends, comes into the garden. She is full of excitement as she has just received the news that her cousin has just arrived from America. Hellmuth is following them—he still is trying to confer with Waldine, but she distracts him by introducing him to her all friends, Wilhelmine, Euphrosine, etc. Hellmuth is disheartened as he has still not managed to tell her who he really is, and, exasperated, leaves. Now the real cousin, Adolf Bothwell, enters. He explains to Waldine that he cannot marry her because he is already married. The news certainly makes Waldine happy, but she also thinks it strange that there are two cousins called Adolf!

 4  When Hellmuth (who is still pretending to be Adolf) reappears, she presents him to the real Adolf and vice versa, to the great bewilderment of the latter! Irony and suspicion tinge the duo of the two men. Hellmuth is forced to reveal his identity as Herr Adolf Meyer!

 5  Kragel in an aside reveals his passion for Fraulein Elvira, a paragon of virtue and learning.

 6  Hellmuth thinks he has found a solution when Betsy (soprano), the American wife of the real cousin Adolf, appears incognito. She has also recently arrived after a stormy Atlantic crossing, and is apparently here on her honeymoon, although frustrated that her husband abandoned her in a hotel to visit his family.

Hellmuth’s plan is to continue pretending to be Adolf, and thus obtain Herr Scholle’s direct consent to marry Waldine. The angry Betsy is willing to assist in his scheme and even gives him Adolf’s wallet, but they will have to be cautious since Herr Kragel is still suspicious.

 7  Betsy helps Hellmuth sustain his disguise as the agent of a Viennese jeweller by pretending to be his assistant when Arabella seeks to arrange payment of her extravagant debts before her husband gets to know of them.

 8  All the company returns, eager to play the party game blind man’s buff, to the astonishment of Adolf who does not know this pastime. Waldine explains the rules to him, to the sound of the waltz heard at the end of the overture. Soon it is Adolf's turn to be blindfolded. Hellmuth pushes Betsy into Adolf’s arms. Adolf, the ‘blind cow’ of the game, removes the blindfold and is flabbergasted to recognise his wife. In the meantime Herr Kragel enters, followed by Herr Scholle: the policeman demands that Hellmuth reveal his identity. He persists in posing as cousin Adolf, and even presents Betsy as his wife, to the amazement of the real Adolf! The poor man, bewildered, can only curse the deceptive game of blind man’s buff. At the climax of the confusion the whole company joins in the irresistible waltz refrain ‘Blindekuh, Blindekuh! / Wir allen führen dich’ (‘Blind cow, Blind cow! / We all lead you on!’).

Act III

Rococo style ballroom with picturesque perspective.

 9  In the large elegant ballroom, guests join in a cotillion.

 10  Herr Kragel, overheard by Johann, tells Elvira that he loves her, but before thinking of his personal happiness, must fulfil his duties as a police officer. It seems that an American named Adolf Bothwell was murdered in Hamburg. The suspect is his valet who then took his identity. Elvira and Johann are shocked and very anxious.

 11  Meanwhile Adolf, Hellmuth, Waldine and Betsy are promenading in the garden. Waldine is surprised at the familiarity between Adolf and Betsy, who reveal that they are married.  12  Asked why they are not more intimate, Betsy points out that in America kissing is seen as a superfluous waste of time—to the disquiet of both Waldine and Hellmuth. Hellmuth, still posing as cousin Adolf, tells Scholle that he cannot marry Waldine, because he is already married: he therefore pays Scholle the $40,000 forfeit. Waldine will now be free to marry the man she loves: Hellmuth Forst. Her father asks who Hellmuth Forst is, and the false cousin Adolf provides a flattering portrait that reassures Herr Scholle! Elvira now warns everyone about the assassin valet, and then Herr Kragel enters with the police. They arrest the false Adolf- Hellmuth for the murder of his master. But now the real cousin Adolf comes forward and proclaims that he is alive! Scholle does not understand anything, but when Waldine introduces Hellmuth as the man she loves, the mystery is finally resolved.

 13  Hellmuth Forst has regained his true name and identity, and when Scholle asks why he and Adolf assumed all these disguises, they answer that it was part of their sly plan—for Hellmuth simply to marry Waldine without challenges! Adolf, responsible for so much confusion from the beginning, observes that practical jokes are the American way! All ends well, and when Arabella asks: ‘But how did all this happen?’, Waldine replies, ‘Well we played the game of blind man's buff!’. The refrain ‘Blindekuh! Blindekuh!’ returns as the curtain falls.

Robert Ignatius Letellier


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