Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Michael Mark
American Record Guide, March 2011

MENOTTI, G.C.: Alte Jungfer und der Dieb (Die) / Das Medium (Studio Productions, 1961 and 1964) (NTSC) 101515
MENOTTI, G.C.: Konsul (Der) (Studio Production, 1963) (NTSC) 101525

My dislike has turned to like. These are straightforward productions with simple, effective sets and costumes. Characters act and react. Both videos are led by conductors who are smart enough to let Menotti’s music unfold naturally. Try these videos; I think you’ll like them.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, March 2011

MENOTTI, G.C.: Konsul (Der) (Studio Production, 1963) (NTSC) 101525
MENOTTI, G.C.: Alte Jungfer und der Dieb (Die) / Das Medium (Studio Productions, 1961 and 1964) (NTSC) 101515

Receiving these from Fanfare turned into a huge surprise. My first reaction on seeing them was something along the lines of “Who needs Menotti operas in German?” However, I dutifully put them in the DVD player, and was totally hooked.

These are co-productions of the Austrian Radio and, in the case of The Consul, the SDR (South German Radio, now part of SWR), and in the case of the other two, the Bavarian Radio. The Old Maid and the Thief dates from 1961, The Consul from 1963, and The Medium from 1964. As a bonus on the two discs there are interviews with Menotti (with The Consul) and director Otto Schenck (with the others). These are rather simplistic Austrian radio interviews that do not offer much insight.

But the productions are, in a word, phenomenal. Menotti has rarely received such luxury casting—look at the names! Who would ever have expected to hear a young Eberhard Wächter in these works? Every singer is perfectly cast, thoroughly into his or her role, and directed with extraordinary effectiveness for the television screen. It is important to note that these were not staged performances filmed for TV. They were created with the television medium in mind, and the works are perfect for that medium.

If you are at all a fan of Menotti’s operas, you must see these. Despite the German language (of course, English titles are provided), they are extraordinarily powerful renditions of all three works. Even Menotti’s comic opera The Old Maid and the Thief has its dark undertones, all of which are brought to the surface by Schenck. The camerawork is excellent, the restored video quality is fine (they are black and white), and the monaural sound is fine.

Highlight performances include both of Wächter’s, Gloria Lane’s infuriating Secretary in the Consul’s office (I wanted to slap her because of the vividness of her portrayal of the unfeeling bureaucrat), Maria José de Vine’s gorgeously sung and touching Monika, and all of the roles taken by Hilde Konetzni and Elisabeth Höngen. Norman Foster (remember him from Horenstein’s Vox Mahler songs?) sings and acts wonderfully as Mr Gobineau, and an astonishing portrayal of an old Italian lady in The Consul is turned in by none other than Ljuba Welitsch.

It is time for a serious reevaluation of Gian Carlo Menotti, and perhaps these European performances, where the music and the drama were taken seriously by some of the most important operatic artists of the 1960s, will help. Menotti may not have carved new ground in his work, but that is not always essential (just look at Mendelssohn for an example of an important composer who created no new paths). His music is high in inspiration, his sense of theatrical pacing is superb, his orchestrations colorful, and he wrote in a very gratifying way for the voice. It would be hard to imagine any opera lover watching these videos and not coming away deeply moved.

There are excellent notes about the productions and the operas—in short, Arthaus Musik has done itself proud. Consider this a very enthusiastic recommendation.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2011

For those who enjoy The Consul, this is the video performance to get.

For those who have never liked The Consul, this is still the video performance to get.

For those who wonder why this writer still occasionally asks to review pieces she has never much liked before, read on.

I asked to review this video of The Consul, an opera in which I always felt the plot was greater than the music, for two reasons: (1) it is the only visual document I’ve run across (and maybe the only one in existence) of the legendary soprano Ljuba Welitsch; and (2) I had a gut feeling that this particular production, featuring well-known singing actors who had lived through the Nazi horror, would interpret their roles in a way that was dramatically meaningful.

I was not disappointed. There are still two sections in the score I think do not work: the first immediately after Magda’s baby dies and the second in the final scene where she gasses herself. In both cases, the music is wrong for the moment. It’s too sweetsy-tonal-melodic, too much like sugarplum fairies, and not even this production, filming, or acting can improve those moments. Others might say that the scene with the Magician is also rather light, but that’s the point of it, and both the music and action there provide a welcome oasis of comedy in an otherwise bleak plot. This particular director (Rudolph Cartier), conductor, and cast give as gripping and starkly realistic a reading of this opera as could be imagined.

Many viewers (and the liner notes) give pride of place to Melitta Muszely’s Magda Sorel, and with good reason. She is the focal point of the drama, and she acquits herself brilliantly. Yet I still believe that Cartier pushed and molded her to give this intense of a performance; certainly, nothing else in her recorded work—well and honestly sung as it is—comes within 100 miles of it. The other real surprise is the secret-police agent of Willy Ferenz, one of the few little-known singers in the cast (he had a small part in a 1953 recording of Die Fledermaus), who is bone-chilling in his role. Eberhard Wächter, Res Fischer, Welitsch, Alois Pernerstorfer, and Gloria Lane (Secretary) are different cases, as all were well known as outstanding singing-actors, Fischer (who studied voice with Lilli Lehmann) being the oldest. Lane, who became an exceptional Carmen at La Scala in the 1950s, was also the original secretary in the world premiere in Philadelphia (she was replaced when The Consul moved to Broadway), and László Szemere was the original Magician of the Vienna State Opera production of 1951–55. The remarkable synergy of this cast, working as an ensemble, grips the viewer and refuses to let him or her go until the final scene is finished. I’m not sure if Cartier was also the conceptual agent behind the camerawork, which borrows several optical and audio effects from Expressionistic German and Swedish film techniques, but in any case the camera crew and technicians deserve great credit for their work here.

Yes, I still have some issues with Menotti’s music—in addition to the two scenes mentioned, some other brief passages smack of 1940s film noir music—but in this black-and-white TV production, that is what the opera most resembles. Menotti’s score, weak points and all, is thus transformed into a focal point for tension and terror on par with films like The Stranger or A Touch of Evil. Franz Bauer-Theussl’s lean, craggy conducting brings even more glare and less gloss to the score. Some readers may still question whether or not The Consul deserved a Pulitzer Prize in music, but in this particular production there’s no question that it can indeed be made a great piece of music drama. In the brief TV interview with Menotti, he reveals that no particular event inspired the opera, but rather a generalized feeling of helplessness in the hands of a dangerous bureaucracy, but in a much later interview Lane said that he told her it was based on his feelings of scientists who were trapped in totalitarian states. One could scarcely ask for more than what this gifted cast gives us here.

Robert Benson, January 2011

Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, considered to be Menotti’s finest opera, had its premiere in March 1950 in Philadelphia, followed by successful performances in New York on Broadway, England, and other European opera centers. It won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1950 and that year’s New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Musical. The plot is about the political dissident John Sorel and his wife Magda who are trying to leave the country but cannot gets visas because of political bureaucracy. Because of constant and frustrating delays, the necessary papers could not be obtained, John is captured, his mother and child die, and Magda kills herself. This is a 1963 German studio production directed by Rudolph Cartier, with appropriately dark sets by Robert Posnik. The cast is superb in every way. Although Melitta Muszely doesn’t match the vocal splendor of Eileen Farrell’s recording of the big Act III aria, she impresses as the doomed heroine. Of particular interest is that three lesser roles are sung by legendary singers of the past: Ljuba Welitsch, the Salome of the 40’s and early 50’s, is the Italian woman. Hilde Konetzni, known for her Wagner and Strauss in major European opera houses, is Vera Boronel. In the opera both of them are trying unsuccessfully to get visas. Res Fischer, one of the truly great German contraltos, who also sang much Strauss (Klytäemnestra, Herodias, The Nurse), sings the role of the Mother. The Secretary is magnificently sung by Gloria Lane, American soprano who sang in the original production. Video and audio (mono) are excellent for the era, and subtitles are in four languages. A very brief interview in German with Menotti adds little to this production; just as he begins to discuss The Consul, the interview abruptly stops.

Parterre Box, December 2010

Arthaus Musik has released on DVD a superb 1963 “Historical Studio Production” of Der Konsul, a German language filmed version of Menotti’s 1950 opera, The Consul. It is a dark, harrowing vision of Menotti’s “denunciation of all forms of tyranny”, beautifully sung, superbly acted, and directed with an almost film noir/expressionistic style by Rudolph Cartier.

Hearing an opera “somewhere in Europe” in a clearly totalitarian society sung in a European language adds an authenticity to its impact. Menotti’s music beautifully combines a Pucciniesque sweep, the dark undertones of Berg, and orchestral cacophony worthy of Strauss to paint a stark musical vision of freedom fighters dealing with a faceless bureaucracy.

The music is perfectly attuned to the emotional lives of its rich characters, particularly here under the baton of Franz Bauer-Theussl, who brings out every nuance in Menotti’s powerful score. Director Cartier brilliantly uses the rudimentary television techniques of the early 1960s to create a nightmarish world reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Der Konsul takes place in the spare Sorel apartment, where resistance fighter John Sorel lives with his wife Magda, his mother, and his sickly baby. Sorel, hounded by the secret police, is leaving to head to safety in the mountains, leaving his wife Magda to try to get a visa to leave the country. The action moves to the office of Der Konsul, where desperate men and women are forced to fill out endless paperwork with the slim hope of getting a visa. The consul’s Secretary is the utter symbol of mindless bureaucracy, serving Der Konsul, who is never seen or heard behind his closed door.

Director Cartier keeps an almost unbearable tension throughout as the desperate Magda tries to find a way to save her husband. The only misstep (Menotti’s or Cartier’s?) is the Magician scene, where Menotti seems to be trying to lighten the proceedings with a buffo moment when the magician/hypnotist tries to make a case for a visa based on his artistry alone. Befuddling the Secretary with magic tricks, he hypnotizes the entire room, getting all the visa applicants to dance. The whole scene feels like we’ve entered a different opera, and interrupts the dramatic flow.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Melitta Muszely, a singer unknown to me until this performance, is the profound heart and soul of this production. Her soprano soars easily and with tremendous vocal variety through Magda’s increasing terrors. She is a film actress of real finesse, wonderfully expressive even in close-up. She handles the famous aria and scene we know as “To this we’ve come” with power, grace, and smoldering intensity.

She is matched by the young Eberhard Waechter as John, passionate and equally skilled at the cinematic style. Another discovery for me was the German contralto Res Fischer as John’s mother, a deeply felt performance, so expressive of the suffering of the old in a society without peace. Her Act Two lullaby to the Sorel’s dying child, “Bringen werd ich dir Sonn und Mond” was sung with overwhelming love and longing. It is a stunning moment.

American mezzo Gloria Lane is excellent as The Secretary, handing out her endless forms and papers behind sunglasses, that her character can hide her eyes and any emotion she feels from the pitiable applicants. When she finally removes the sunglasses as she closes the office, we are allowed to see her own frustrations in the moving “Oh, diese Gesichter”. Lane’s juicy mezzo and stiff-spined demeanor create just the right bureaucratic emptiness.

In luxury casting, we have Ljuba Welitsch as the Italian Woman, touching in her need to find her dying daughter. Willy Ferenz is appropriately chilling as the Secret Police Agent.

Menotti’s ability to combine the personal with the political in this masterwork is breathtaking. There is an immediacy to the issues and characters in this work, belying the more than half century since its Philadelphia debut in 1950. It is no surprise that The Consul ran for 269 performances on Broadway thereafter. The only surprise is that this opera is not performed more today.

This extraordinary studio performance is one to savor. Also included is a brief interview with Menotti from German television. But watchers will find themselves unable to turn away from the voice of Muszely’s Magda or the layers of thought and emotion in her hypnotic eyes. This opera and this performance are glorious examples of 20th century music drama.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, October 2010

Gian Carlo Menotti’s topical Cold War opera The Consul (Arthaus Musik) has lost none of its relevance, as this vintage 1963 German television production shows (lone extra: Menotti interview)

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group