KORNGOLD: Die Kathrin, Op. 28 (Opera in Three Acts)
Melanie Diener (Kathrin); David Rendall (François); Della Jones (Monique); Melanie Armistead (Margot); Lillian Watson (Chou-Chou); Robert Hayward (Malignac); Melanie Armitstead (Margot); Toby Spence (Ticket Seller, Vagabond, Tailor); Alison Duguid (Young Girl, Landlady); Johannes Mannov (Raoul, Hairdresser); Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (Student); Richard Lloyd Morgan (Captain, Stage Director); Anthony Smith (Policeman, Waiter); Margaret Feaviour (Little François); Brindley Sherratt (Farmhand); BBC Singers; BBC Concert Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins, cond.
cpo 999 602 (3 CDs) (DDD) TT: 162:22


This is an important release, the first recording ever of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's last opera. Die Kathrin, Op. 28, completed in 1937, was called by the composer "a folk opera." As Korngold's father, the vitriolic Dr. Julius Korngold, who had dominated the Viennese musical scene with his critiques, had retired, the composer decided to have his new opera premiered in Vienna where now his father's past influence would not be a factor. Scheduled for a premiere in March 1938 with a remarkable cast featuring Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna in the title role and Polish tenor Jan Kiepura as leading tenor, no less than Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the premiere promised to be a starry event indeed. However, Kiepura had a contract with the Metropolitan Opera and had to withdraw; he was to be replaced by another fine tenor, Richard Tauber - but his film committments made this impossible. At that time Warner Bros. asked Korngold to return to Hollywood to score The Adventures of Robin Hood (which won the composer his second Academy Award), and the director of the Vienna State Opera recommended Korngold take this opportunity, agreeing to postpone the premiere of Die Kathrin until the fall. It was not meant to be. Hitler marched in and the opera's premiere was cancelled. The Nazis destroyed as many of Korngold's possessions as they could, but fortunately a copy of Kathrin existed in a Viennese publishing house. This publisher, Josef Weinberger, arranged for two of his men to break into the composer's already occupied house in Vienna to rescue the rest of Korngold's manuscripts which were then sent on to him in Hollywood (they are now in the Library of Congress). The first performance of Die Kathrin didn't take place until Oct. 7, 1939 in Stockholm with a cast headed by Maria Reining, Karl Friedrich and Otto Edelmann. Reviews were indifferent, there were only eight performances and the opera has not been staged since.

The music is typical Korngold, scored for large orchestra with a number of unusual instruments including guitar, accordion, three jazz saxophones, a toy piano, cowbells and the vibraphone, the latter a favorite of the composer who used it often in his film music as well as in his violin concerto. The original plot of the opera was the romance between a German servant girl and a French soldier during the First World War and the resulting rapprochement of the two nations. The German publisher would not accept this scenario because of the political situation with Hitler, so the plot was stripped of its political overtones, set in a university town, updated to 1930, Kathrin became a Swiss girl and her soldier boyfriend became a strolling minstrel doing his military service. The libretto, by Austrian writer and critic Dr. Ernst Decsey, who was a friend of Korngold's father, is weak and even the composer's sumptuous music cannot arouse dramatic interest. CD notes by Brendan G. Carroll, author of The Last Prodigy - the definitive biography of Korngold - optimistically suggest certain sections of Kathrin are equal to the composer's earlier success, Die Tote Stadt. Lovely, yes - equal, no - far from it. Kathrin contains much music of great beauty, with never any question of who wrote it. It's unfortunate the story is so inconsequential.

This recorded performance is fine. Both Melanie Diener and David Rendall as the two leads manage their very demanding roles successfully. The only weak member of the cast is Lillian Watson as Chou-Chou, the chanteuse in the second act club scene; the high-soprano writing (which Carroll compares with Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos) is, unfortunately, beyond Watson's abilities. Martyn Brabbins continues to impress as a prominent younger conductor on today's musical scene. This is a live recording made Nov. 23, 1997 in Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, with Philip Burwell as sound engineer. The sonic picture is broad and resonant with voices and orchestra well balanced . A complete libretto in German/English is provided. The third scene of the first act is dialogue only, not included on the recording although the text is given. In the '50s Korngold was planning a sixth opera, a gothic romance based on Grillparzer's famous novel Das Kloster bei Sendomir, but this project never was started; the composer died in 1957. To hear Korngold at his operatic best, listen to Die Tote Stadt or Das Wunder der Heliane (if you are able to find the deleted RCA recording of the former, the deleted Decca/London recording of the latter). Also you might wish to investigate the recent DVD issue of Tote Stadt from the Rhin Opera (REVIEW).

Lovers of Korngold surely will wish to own this recording of one of his major - although flawed - works. Thank you, cpo, for giving us the opportunity to hear this music!

R.E.B. (May 2003)