Dé Review: this review was first published in November 1998 and the disc is still available.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Die Kathrin Op. 28 (1937), Opera in Three Acts
Kathrin Melanie Diener (soprano), Francois David Rendall (tenor), Malignac Robert Hayward (bass-baritone), Chou-Chou Lillian Watson (soprano), Monique Della Jones (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Singers
BBC Concert Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. live, 23 November 1997, Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
cpo 999 602-2 [3 CDs: 162]

Grand opera and a tumultuous passion meet operetta in Die Kathrin. This is Korngold’s fifth and final opera. It runs 18 mins short of three hours. It is here recorded without scene 3 which comprises spoken dialogue only. The words are printed in the booklet.

Here we have a late grand opera not as late as Walton’s Troilus and Cressida but late enough. It was written between 1932 and 1937, being completed very close to his very fortunate departure for the USA to score the film, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Listening now to so much of his concert music we realise that rather than his concert music sounding like his film music his swooningly effective style was well established in his concert works first. You notice it all the more in this full-strength opera complete with grand orchestra including orchestral piano, three saxes and a spot-on vibraphone.

Korngold subtitled the work ‘a folk-opera’ and you can see or hear why, especially in the final Act. It charts an extremely sentimental story with music to match.

CPO have, in short, done the work proud. Their cast, though not without weakness, is very good and the eponymous lead is wonderful. David Rendall (a name suddenly known because of a recent incident in which after a stage dagger retractor mechanism failed he inadvertently stabbed a fellow singer) as the romantic soldier-chansonnier, François is in good voice though he shows some strain. I cannot swear to the faithfulness of the accents but they sound authentic.

The story (apologies for brutal compression here) is one of Kathrin falling in love with a garrison soldier (François) whose heart is in music, the lute and singing rather than soldiering. He seduces her to the backdrop of glorious music and the two fall in love. A child (a boy – inevitably called François) is born. The garrison leaves the town and with it goes François. Kathrin (in early pregnancy) goes to Marseille in search of her love. She is almost seduced by a night club owner who, by typically operatic coincidence, has hired François as a chansonnier. François believes the owner has seduced Kathrin and is shot by Monique (an associate of the owner) though everyone believes it was either Kathrin or Francois. François goes to prison. Kathrin goes to Switzerland and there has the child. The couple are reunited five years later and live blissfully ever after.

From the first track of Scene 1 we are treated to Korngold in confident resplendently bright music (pre-echoing his film music). There is a Mahlerian female chorus and the music rushes and surges in romantic waves like a Viennese Nutcracker (The Snowflakes). The singing has a heady Puccinian urbanity and an elated ecstasy. The first hints of operetta are heard in a brightness mixed with Elgarian audacity. In ‘Es ist ja wahr‘ vigorous and noble trumpets erupt in silvery flamboyant fanfare. Sliding and mildly discordant washes of string sound evoke the Franz Schmidt of the second symphony. The caressing and trembling tenderness of the love duet is pointed up by the vibraphone which instantly recalls the fine use of this instrument in the film scores. Truly sumptuous.

The second scene opens with a (Richard) Straussian duet for two sopranos, Kathrin and Margot, and leads into Kathrin’s aria as she writes her farewell letter to the delightfully-named lover, François Lorand. François comes to her room in the moonlit night and the ‘Dear John’ letter, Kathrin’s letter, is never sent. You can hear her ecstatic despair and joy melt and flow together in the lava flow of Korngold’s melody. Ardent romance smokes and fumes on François’s words ‘Kathrin ich habe dich gern’. Echoes of Robin Hood and Elizabeth and Essex resonate around the embrace which ends the scene in gossamer sensuality. A master-stroke is the almost tangible picture of the ‘Dear John’ letter blowing off the table as the warm night air fills the room.

Track 7 opens with several minutes of orchestral entr’acte: a thunderous and clangorous prelude which reminded me of one of Arnold Bax’s stentorian Irish marches – just a tad bombastic. It slips into an eldritch processional – kitsch but effective. The next scene can be envisioned as a slow motion wave of passion frozen then haltingly moving forward. From this develops a heroic trio with François’s music utterly wonderful despite being delivered with a faintly steely edge The drinking song scene rather lets the track record down. It is a blowsy carouse to the prominent words: “Valleri! Vallera!” For me it is a miscalculation, superficial and weak with a skittering and tramping chorus of students and girls. It is punctuated by a prominent xylophone. This has the worst overtones of Verdi at his most tawdry. Appalling cheap brummagem stuff. This however is lightened by the touchingly tender ‘Mein mann hat mich vermieden‘, predicting music from Tomorrow and The Sea Wolf film.

Act II depicts Kathrin’s fate while wandering to find her François, armed with expired passport and a love letter. Vulnerable and lonely she is gulled by Malignac (the night club owner) who gets her a fake passport. In the fourth scene operetta raises its head again with jerkily romantic and winningly bright-eyed music. The ladies choir sings with silvery tone. This music might almost be by Stephen Sondheim as in A Little Night Music. The luxuriantly floated high notes from Lillian Watson, as Chou Chou, are a treasurable moment amongst many. A softly seductive trio of saxes permeate the music. At 2:47 in track 5 (Disc 2) we get a truly lovely Viennese impression (yes I know the locale is meant to be Marseille) breathing coffee and cream.

Malignac muses satyr-like on the pleasures of enjoying Kathrin, his plan all along. Korngold allows him some fine music in one of those steady mountain-climbing, stepped melodies of which Korngold is a master-craftsman. There is a mildly distressing wobble in the voice of Robert Hayward (Malignac) but nothing too distracting. The seduction proceeds but in front of François who interrupts only when he realises that it is Kathrin before him. This episode slips intothe next scene with the orchestra’s wild caterwauling, howling and shouting of death. The music then begins to toll and shudder after the death of Malignac. Kathrin is left musing on her fate as Francois is dragged away to trial and prison.

The third Act is the shortest of the three, at 43:32. It is in four scenes and all have a folk-opera feel. The music may well have been influenced by Delius’s ‘A Walk To the Paradise Garden’. The setting is the Swiss mountains. The melodies and airs have around them a halo of innocence and a lightness which suggests Canteloube’s orchestrations of the Songs of Auvergne. A devastatingly poetic moment comes at the opening of scene 2 when the orchestra vividly pictures clouds piercing the mountain heights just as François arrives singing. Surely Korngold wrote this music to be sung along to – a Viennese karaoke. François, the journeyman singer, serenades Kathrin for a lovelorn tailor – a Cyrano de Bergerac moment. The lute song is sweetly sung and in the middle of it François recognises Kathrin and recognition is marked by a Schrecker-like crisis in the orchestra.

We are then treated to more bright Sondheim-like eagerness as they reproach and then forgive themselves and fall into each others arms to meltingly swooping strings and burnished eloquent brass crying out to heaven. The strings subtly touch in the moonlight as the lovers go to the house, borne along on the glimmering glow of the strings. A happy ending with very little sourness but just enough grit and steel to sustain this major structure.

Now, opera managements forget your fly-on-the-wall stardoms and let’s have an operatic season with Die Kathrin included. Come the day! Audiences glowing with this experience will walk out into the night after the performance onto wet streets. The recording, which is remarkably rich, delivers a great frisson. Just listen to ‘Bin dir weib (man) das sich selbst durch dich gewann.’ Utterly wonderful. I confess to being moved to tears by this exuberantly emotive music.

Brendan G Carroll author of THE Korngold biography (The Last Prodigy) is the author of the 116 page notes. Everything is thoroughly well documented. I noted many fine little touches showing a discriminating judgement: e.g. the brave and successful decision to keep any printing off the covers of the CD insert – just a great photo of a 40 year old Korngold. The libretto is in German and English. There is a synopsis. The notes – though not the libretto – are in English, French and German.

This is a superb production: music of your most romantic dreams and packing a grand emotional punch with smouldering and flaming fervour. Hotly recommended.

If you liked Die Kathrin let me also recommend the Chandos CDs of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida; Othmar Schoeck’s two operas Massimila, Doni (Koch) and Venus (MGB) and, as an off-beat link-in, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (BMG) and A Little Night Music (Sony-CBS).

Rob Barnett

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