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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAUSS II, J.: Zigeunerbaron (Der) (The Gypsy Baron) (Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Ackermann) (1954)
Second in popularity only to Die Fledermaus, Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron is a colourful comic opera whose vividly drawn characters include a gypsy girl who turns out to be a Turkish Pasha’s daughter, a fortune-telling Romany queen, an exiled landowner, ridiculous local dignitaries, hussars and, inevitably, a band of gypsies. Embroiling themselves in the entertainingly convoluted plot, the stellar cast of this 1954 London recording includes Gedda, Prey and Sinclair, still in their twenties, and Schwarzkopf, yet to turn forty and at her peak.
By David Denton
Though Der Zigeunerbaron has never achieved anything like the success that Johann Strauss enjoyed with Die Fledermaus, it has enjoyed a number of outstanding recordings, this from 1954 undoubtedly the finest. It starred Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who was surrounded by a very young team that included Nicolai Gedda, Erika Koth and Hermann Prey, all in the safe hands of the much experienced conductor, Otto Ackermann. The operetta’s lack of success outside of German speaking countries, is largely due to its highly complicated and unbelievable plot. That is explained in long stretches of spoken dialogue that only prove a punctuating burden on highly attractive music. Dress it up with this superb cast that, in addition to the lead singers, has Erich Kunz, the great comic artist, and the fruity quality of the English contralto, Monica Sinclair, and you have a desirable performance. Of course most will buy the discs for Schwarzkopf’s portrayal of the gypsy heroine, Saffi, and she will not disappoint, while Koth’s brilliant coloratura is a joy to the ear. It is recorded with the cuts that were oft used at the time, but have thankfully been restored in more recent releases. The transfer of the original Columbia discs is superb and gives them new life. Filling empty space Naxos has included four tacks of historic performances, including a Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber recording from 1928 that was something very special, while the Treasure Waltz in the hands of Leo Blech and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra has more vivacity than we hear today.
Johann Strauss II (1825–1899): The Gypsy Baron (Der Zigeunerbaron)
Great Operetta Recordings
Barinkay - Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Saffi - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Zsupán - Erich Kunz (baritone)
Arsena - Erika Köth (soprano)
Czipra - Gertrude Burgsthaler-Schuster (contralto)
Carnero - Willy Ferenz (bass) • Karel Stepanek (speaking rôle)
Mirabella - Monica Sinclair (contralto) • Lea Seidl (speaking rôle)
Ottokar - Josef Schmidinger (bass)
Count Homonay - Hermann Prey (baritone)
Pali - Erich Paulik (bass)
Outside German-speaking countries Johann Strauss’s operetta Der Zigeunerbaron of 1885 has never been a great box-office hit. In Britain it has not had a professional stage performance since the old Sadler’s Wells Company gave the work in a version by Geoffrey Dunn in June 1964. The Metropolitan Opera in New York mounted a production in November 1959 but the work remained in repertory for just two seasons and ten performances. The complicated plot may well have contributed to the problem but the score is full of some of the composer’s best tunes. Fortunately the work has not been without recordings, if they have failed to remain in the record catalogues for much time. Also the work has been filmed in a variety of different version ever since the 1927 silent German film to at least six later attempts.
Der Zigeunerbaron is set in three acts to a text by the Hungarian-born Ignaz Schnitzer (1839–1921), adapted from a libretto by Mór Jókai (1825–1904) based on her story Saffi. The composer had originally conceived the work for the opera house but later decided on the idea of an operetta, especially as the action was set in the gypsy encampment in the Hungarian swamps, not in the high life of the upper classes of a capital city.
It was in February 1884 that the Viennese press first got news that a new stage work was under way from Strauss. The title of the work was known and the place of the première revealed. The composer, however, put off starting composition for several months, but Schnitzer continued his work quickly so that by 30 June 1884 he sent the libretto for the third act. He also urged Strauss to have his work completed by 15 January 1885 since the operetta was to be a feature of the International Exhibition to be held in Pest. Any further progress was halted as the Viennese public wished to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his artistic career. Strauss announced on 21 November 1884 that because of his health the new work would now not be ready until the autumn of 1885. Moreover when Strauss returned to his new work he decided to expand the scenario to cover the earlier Hungarian subject to reflect the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy of 1867, also changing certain musical aspects as well. The librettist and composer moved to the Belgian costal town of Ostend in July 1885 to work together undisturbed. Strauss, however, had to leave for conducting engagements in Berlin in September. Thus it was not until October that the work was completed. The première took place at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna on 24 October 1885 with the composer, on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, as conductor. The operetta was well received by press and public, running for 87 performances. The composer later arranged three numbers as orchestral works: Schatz-Walzer and the polka Brautschau and Kriegsabenteuer.
This recording made in the autumn of 1954 in London was one in a series of six operettas produced by Walter Legge during the years 1953–55. His overall concept was to capture the spirit of the classic Viennese operetta idiom whilst not always necessarily adopting a note-for-note fidelity to the score. Thus, these recordings invariably featured excisions of certain musical numbers. For example, we find the solo for Mirabella in Act 1 omitted, the couplets of the ‘Decency Commission’ in Act 2, the opening chorus of Act 3, and the ensuing trio for Zsupán, Arsena and Mirabella and various sections of melodrama and exit music also excised. Furthermore certain other cuts made for stage productions were also introduced. Part of this may have been in order to get the recording on to four LP vinyl sides. Again various downward transpositions of the vocal parts were necessary to fit the voices chosen for the recording. What cannot be denied, however, is the quality of the performance. The enthusiastic reviewer Philip Hope-Wallace commented in the October 1958 issue of The Gramophone: “For my money this is the best complete Gipsy Baron to date; better recording, better singing and better…ensemble…At all the testing points Schwarzkopf simply outsings her rivals… Gedda is perhaps a little over elegant…but how welcome to others…the light touch, the poised upper notes”. Of Erich Kunz, he remarked: “The clinching point is the presence of that delightful comic artist…It is pure gain to have here in the awkward comic role of the pig breeder Kálmán Zsupán”. Of the other performers he said: “Erika Köth takes her chances well…Hermann Prey and Willy Ferenz are on their toes…the singing voice of Monica Sinclair and spoken voice of Lea Seidl, adds up to a vivid whole”. The final comment is “here is, in short, another vintage champagne recording of a Viennese operetta”.
The versatility of the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda has always been considered remarkable in that he has sung in and can speak seven languages. Born in Stockholm in 1925 of a Russian father, a bass member of the Kuban Don Cossack Choir and later cantor at the Russian Orthodox Church in Leipzig, and a Swedish mother, he studied with the Swedish tenor Carl Maria Oehman at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. He made his début at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1951 in the première of Sutermeister’s Der rote Stiefe, followed by the rôle of Chapelou in Adam’s Le postillon de Longjumeau in April 1952, an occasion which brought him to international attention. After taking part in the first Western recording of Boris Godunov under Dobrowen (Naxos 8.110242-44), Gedda made his La Scala début in 1953 as Don Ottavio and as the Groom in the première of Orff’s Il trionfo di Afrodite. The following years saw him appear at the Paris Opéra (Huon in Oberon), the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Covent Garden (the Duke in Rigoletto), Salzburg Festival (Belmonte in Die Entführung) and the Metropolitan in New York as Gounod’s Faust. In 1958 he created the rôle of Anatol in Barber’s Vanessa, which he also gave in Salzburg. He first sang Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at the Holland Festival in 1961, which he later repeated at Covent Garden in 1966, 1969 and 1976. He also appeared in Russia in 1980–81 to great acclaim. His London concert hall début took place in 1986. He sang at the Met for 22 seasons in 27 rôles in 289 performances. He was still recording as recently as 2002. Gedda has proved the most versatile lyric tenor of his time with a vast discography covering every conceivable aspect of the repertory.
The rôle of Saffi is sung by the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915–2006), wife of the recording producer and impresario Walter Legge (1906– 1979) whom she married in 1953. She studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and later with the soprano Maria Ivogün, making her début as one of the Flowermaidens in Parsifal with the Städtische Oper, Berlin, in 1938. Originally a lyrical soprano she undertook rôles such as Adèle in Die Fledermaus, Musetta in La Bohème and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxoswhen she joined the Vienna State Opera under Karl Böhm in 1943. Her first overseas appearance was with this company on their visit to London in 1948, when she sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Marzelline in Fidelio. She later joined the fledgling Covent Garden Company where for five seasons she sang a variety of rôles, mostly in English. Alongside these appearances, Schwarzkopf sang at the Salzburg Festival (1946–1964), La Scala, Milan (1948–1963), San Francisco (1955–1964) and, finally, at the Metropolitan in New York in 1964. She was greatly admired in the rôles of the Marschallin, Fiordiligi, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, and Donna Elvira. She also had a distinguished parallel career as a Lieder singer in the concert hall.
The Austrian baritone Erich Kunz (1909–1995) was born in Vienna, where he studied with Professor Lierhammer and the baritone Hans Duhan. Making his début as Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Troppau in 1933, he spent the summer of 1935 as a member of the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. This was followed by periods in Plauen (1936–37) and Breslau (1937–41) before joining the Vienna State Opera in 1940. Two years later followed his Salzburg Festival début as Figaro. The year 1943 saw Kunz at the Bayreuth Festival singing Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, a rôle he would repeat in 1951. He visited London in 1948 as a member of the Vienna Company, singing Leporello, Figaro and Guglielmo. He sang the last rôle on his return to Glyndebourne in 1950. His years at the Metropolitan in New York were between 1952 and 1954 when he sang 22 performances of four rôles, Beckmesser, Leporello, Faninal and Figaro. He again sang in London with the Vienna Company in 1954. Kunz was a fine Mozartian with an engaging stage manner. He was also admired in operetta and Viennese songs.
In the rôle of Homonay is the Berlin-born baritone Hermann Prey (1929–1998). He studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and in 1952 he was a prizewinner of Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt. Later that year he made his début as the Second Prisoner in Fidelio in Wiesbaden, followed by Monuccio in d’Albert’s Tiefland. Prey then joined the Hamburg State Opera (1953–1960) and in 1957 first sang in Vienna, followed two years later by appearances in Munich. Between 1960 and 1970 in six seasons Prey appeared at the Metropolitan in New York, making his début as Wolfram. In 1965 he first sang at Bayreuth, again as Wolfram, returning as a perceptive Beckmesser in 1981. In 1973 Prey sang Figaro in Rossini’s Barbiere at Covent Garden and subsequently reappeared as Guglielmo, Papageno and Eisenstein. Although he had sung Verdi parts in his early years, he later concentrated on Mozart and Strauss, singing Olivier (Hamburg 1957), Harlequin (Munich 1960), and Robert Storch (Munich 1960). In 1997 he returned to the Salzburg Festival as Der Sprecher in Die Zauberflöte. In 1988, he directed a production of Le nozze di Figaro at Salzburg. He was also one of the founders of a Schubert Festival in Austria. Prey died in Munich in November 1998.
The coloratura soprano Erika Köth (1927–1989) was born in Darmstadt where she began musical studies with Elsa Blank in 1942, and after a break resumed them in 1945. She made her stage début as Philine in Mignon in Kaiserslautern in 1948, and later sang in Karlsruhe between 1950 and 1953 and in the latter year appeared at the Munich State Opera and the Vienna State Opera. It was with this company that she first appeared at Covent Garden in 1953. She appeared regularly at the Salzburg Festival (1955–64) as the Queen of the Night and Konstanze in addition to Bayreuth (1965–68) as the Woodbird. She also made guest appearances in Milan and Paris in addition to the Berlin State Opera in 1961. Her rôles included Susanna, Zerlina, Sophie, Lucia, Gilda, Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol and The Rake’s Progress. Her voice was a smallish one of considerable agility.
The Viennese-born contralto Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster (1916–2004) studied at the Staatsakademie für Musik from 1935 to 1938. At the age of twenty she married an Army officer Hugo Burgsthaler (who was later killed in 1944 in Normandy). From 1945 to 1950 she was under contract to the Vienna State Opera. Later she appeared under her maiden name Gertrude Schuster. With this company she made 362 appearances in some 28 rôles which included Kundry (Parsifal) and Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus). In 1950 she married Dr Horst Granzner (who died in 1998). From 1951 to 1965 Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster was engaged at the Linz Landestheater where she appeared in sixty rôles. From 1963 to 1980 she taught singing at the Bruckner Konservatorium, where she was awarded the title Professor in 1976. In 1998 she returned to Vienna, where she died in 2004.
The English contralto Monica Sinclair (1925–2002) was born in Evercreech, Somerset, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. She made her stage début in 1948, singing Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, with the Carl Rosa Opera. The following year she joined the Covent Garden Company performing the Second Boy in The Magic Flute and also sang Maddalena in Rigoletto, Mrs Sedley in Peter Grimes, Feodor in Boris Godunov, Suzuki, and Rosette in Manon, Flosshilde in Das Rheingold and Siegrune in Die Walküre. She also created the parts of a Heavenly Body in the première of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951), the Countess of Essex in Britten’s Gloriana in 1953, Evadne in the world première of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida in 1954 and a Voice in the first performance of Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage in 1955. Later she sang Sosostris in that opera as well. She also recorded many of the contralto rôles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas under Sargent between 1955 and 1962. She made her début at Glyndebourne in 1954 as Ragonde in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. Other parts that she sang at Glyndebourne included Berta, Dryade in 1957 and Queen Henrietta in I Puritani in 1960. Sinclair was an excellent Handel singer. She retired in 1969.
The Swiss-naturalised Otto Ackermann (1909–1960) was born in Bucharest, he first studied there at the Royal Academy of Music before moving to the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where his teachers were Georg Szell and Leo Prüwer. At the age of fifteen he conducted the Royal Romanian Orchestra while they were on tour, before accepting a position in the Opera House of his native city for the 1925–26 season. He was appointed a Kapellmeister at Düsseldorf Opera in 1928 and in 1932 moved to the German Opera in Brno. This was followed by an appointment in 1935 to the Municipal Theatre in Berne, where he remained until 1947. Between 1949 and 1955 Ackermann worked regularly at Zurich Opera in addition to the Theater an der Wien between 1947 and 1953. This was followed by a period of three years as Music Director at the Cologne Opera. He returned to Zurich in 1958 but soon became seriously ill, dying in 1960. Ackermann was a fine conductor of both opera and operetta in addition to being admired as a sound Mozartian.
 Overture. The scene is set in eighteenth-century Hungary. Near the village of Banat, in Temesvar Province, stands a partly ruined castle, a peasant house and, close by, a gypsy hut.
 The first act opens with a chorus of boatmen, celebrating their bold life, with no true sailor afraid of the water.
 A young peasant, Ottokar, son of Mirabella, governess to Arsena, daughter of the pig-farmer Zsupán, observed by the old woman Czipra, complains that his search for gold hidden in the castle ruins is always in vain. Czipra makes fun of him, particularly for his love of Arsena, who lives nearby, and the time he wastes looking for treasure. The sound of the boatmen’s chorus is heard again.
 Sándor Barinkay enters, heir to the castle. He has spent twenty years away in exile, thanks to his father’s association with the previous Turkish rulers, and, as a free spirit, has engaged in a variety of activities, working in a travelling circus, then in a freak-show and as a magician, fire-eater, knife-thrower, tightrope-walker and juggler.
 Now Barinkay has left all that. He is accompanied by Count Carnero, Royal Commissioner, who will help to ratify his title to the property.
 Carnero sees the old gypsy woman, Czipra, and seeks to enrol her as a witness.
 Czipra reads Barinkay’s hand, foretelling wealth, if he finds a wife that loves him, to be revealed on his wedding night. Carnero laughs at her and seeks his own fortune.
 She tells him that he too will find a treasure again that he did not know he had lost.
 Carnero asks Czipra to add her signature to the paper he holds, as a witness, but she does not know how to write; all she can do is add a pentagram. Zsupán now makes his appearance, and Carnero asks him to sign the document.
 Zsupán, however, has always been more interested in his pigs than in reading or writing, a well-known figure throughout the country, a prince of pigs.
 Barinkay greets him as the mightiest pig-breeder in the land and suggests a match with Zsupán’s daughter Arsena, although Zsupán warns him he may be a litigious neighbour.
 Arsena is called from the house, [but Mirabella makes her appearance first, turning out to be the long-lost wife of Carnero, a ‘treasure’ he did not consider he had lost, but proving Czipra’s first prophecy correct]. Arsena appears, heavily veiled, but making it clear that she has other ideas.
 Before Arsena lowers her veil the wedding-cake must be brought, according to traditional custom. Zsupán tells his daughter that her new suitor is the heir to the castle. Arsena, in an aside, fears she will have to give up her lover, Ottokar.
 Arsena lowers her veil, revealing her beauty to Barinkay, reminding Zsupán of his own appearance as a young man.
 Barinkay asks Arsena if she agrees to the marriage, enchanted by her. She has other ideas, and will only marry nobility; she has no need of other suitors, as she is in love with Ottakar; Barinkay is not the first nor will be the last of those seeking her hand; like a moth, he will singe his wings on the candle.
 The gypsy girl Saffi sings of the loyalty and fidelity customary among gypsies, overheard by Barinkay.
 He is attracted by her beauty and agrees to take supper with her and Czipra, her mother.
 Ottokar, not seeing the others watching, calls to Arsena, who appears on her balcony, to the interest of Barinkay. Ottokar declares his love for her, mocking her absurd new suitor, and they sing together of their love for each other, always observed by Barinkay. Ottokar gives her a love token, to Barinkay’s increasing indignation. Barinkay is restrained by Czipra and Saffi, while Arsena withdraws, having assured Ottokar of her love.
 The gypsies are heard returning from work, and Czipra introduces Barinkay as their new master.
 Czipra tells him that he can trust the gypsies and now he is their new leader, welcomed by them all. With the necessary claim to nobility as a gypsy baron, Barinkay approaches Zsupán’s house again, claiming Arsena as his bride, any objections now met. He turns to the gypsies, affirming his position as their baron.
 Saffi welcomes Barinkay back to his homeland, and they are both in admiration one of the other, while Zsupán and his friends mock Barinkay’s ridiculous pretensions. He declares, however, that he will marry Saffi, an insult to Arsena, who seeks revenge, while her father doubts the wisdom of his own behaviour.
 All react in their own way to the situation, Mirabella scandalized, Zsupán and his supporters angry, and Saffi and the gypsies delighted.
 Saffi has had a dream in which the ghost of Barinkay’s father had revealed the hiding place of the treasure. Barinkay is sceptical but agrees to join in the treasure hunt.
 They search together, and find the treasure, celebrating their discovery in the treasure-waltz, the gold an answer to all difficulties.
 As they go, the gypsies wake, roused by old Pali and summoned to work.
 The gypsy women sing at their work.
 Zsupán’s cart has stuck in the mud and he calls on the gypsies for help, which they refuse, taking his money and his watch, to his anger. His shouts bring Carnero and others to the scene, with Barinkay now dressed as a gypsy baron.
 Barinkay introduces Saffi as his wife, explaining, in answer to Carnero’s doubts, how they have been married by the birds, to the song of the nightingale, with storks as witnesses. [Carnero has doubts as to the legality of the proceedings.]
 He expresses his disapproval of such a doubtful authority. [Ottokar finds a few gold coins, but is disillusioned by Barinkay, who tells him the treasure had already been found.]
 Count Homonay, an old friend of Barinkay, appears, leading a recruiting party, seeking soldiers to fight in the war in Spain.
 He stands drinks for the potential recruits, with a recruiting song and a csardas.
 It seems that matters may be resolved in Vienna, and Arsena sings of the wine, women and song, a city where everyone understands love.
 Carnero appeals to the Count, who must understand these matters, His reservations about Barinkay’s marriage are supported by Zsupán and his friends, until Czipra interrupts, declaring that Saffi is not her child.
 Czipra has watched over Saffi, as she grew up, and has a document, which she hands to the Count, who pronounces the girl the daughter of a prince, to general astonishment; her father was the last Pasha of Hungary.
 Saffi is delighted, but Barinkay realises he cannot marry a person of such importance. He must part from her, and join the Hussars.
 Barinkay must go, responding to the call of patriotism, and leaves, together with Zsupán and Ottokar, who have been press ganged into the army.
 In the entr’acte the theme of the treasure-waltz is heard and the scene changes to Vienna.
 [The army has been victorious and there is general rejoicing, with Arsena singing of the difficulties of love and courting.] Zsupán, returning from battle, greets the company.
 He goes on to boast of his martial and other exploits in Spain.
 The victorious soldiers sing of their triumphs.
 They are congratulated by Homonay on their success, with Barinkay and Ottokar promoted to the nobility as a reward for their bravery.
 This removes any possible objections to the marriage of Saffi and Barinkay and of Arsena and Ottokar, so that all ends in general rejoicing.
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STRAUSS II, J.: Zigeunerbaron (Der) (The Gypsy Bar...