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Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek: Benzin
Johanna Stojkovic (Gladys), Carsten Süss (Ulysses Eisenhardt), Guibee Yang (Violet), Andreas Kindschuh (Freidank), Thomas Mäthger (Joe M. Plumcake), André Riemer (Emil Nikolaus Machullke), Susanne Thielemann (Lissy), Martin Gäbler (Franz Xaver Obertupfer), Tiina Penttnen (Nell), Heidrun Göpfert (the old woman), Kouta Räsänen (Jeremias Thunderbolt), Matthias Winter (Meyer), Mathias Kunze (Müller), Peter Heber (Lehmann), Stephan Höning (servant), Ulrike Baer (young lady), Opera Chemnitz Chorus, Robert Schumann Philharmonic Frank Beermann (conductor)
Live recording: Theater Chemnitz, Chemnitz, Germany (November 28-29, 2010) – 93’09
cpo 777 653-2 – Booklet in German and English

Literally translated into English, Petrol, this esoteric von Reznicek comic opera was shelved for more than 80 years until it was uncovered and premiered by the Theater Chemnitz in 2010. Likely best recognized by the Donna Diana “Overture” (better known to the public as the musical theme of the 1955-1958 television series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon), von Reznicek's stylization of his 1894 work can be heard inside Benzin even though the score’s complexities have matured. Emil von Reznicek’s music can’t be pegged into one school of thought: while the music suggests moments of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Kurt Weill, and John Kander’s Cabaret, Benzin wears a definitive originality on several fronts.

Loosely grounded by a literary indoctrination of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El mayor encanto amor and Homer’s Odyssey, this highly inventive concoction mixes von Reznicek’s personal life into E.T.A. Hoffmann’s imaginativeness à la Offenbach’s grotesqueness inside Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Just as the composer finished the score on June 27, 1929, Germany was insidiously moving forward with its “redefinition” of European domination and by way of zeppelins. This tangible commodity becomes the opera’s anchor, and it introduces the plot.

Benzin’s cast is first-rate. Running out of petrol, Ulysses Eisenhardt is forced to make an emergency landing on an uncharted island. Carsten Süss sings with such clarity and polish that he easily establishes himself as a man who will not fall under the spell of an evil American billionaire’s (Jeremias Thunderbolt) daughter, Gladys. In the booklet’s photos, we see Johanna Stojkovic aptly sporting a red wig...a short-tempered red headed ruler: controlling and determined, the soprano’s relentless objective is to cast a hex on the airship’s commander (she turns men into animals...yes, quite crazy.) Though unsuccessful, she outlines another strategy through her so called “friend”, Violet. Guibee Yang (Violet) has the most impressionable, pliable voice of all. This young lady easily maneuvers through von Reznicek’s grand coloratura scales and sparkling trills.

But we also hear a Germanic reading of Rossinian buffo via Martin Gäbler, André Riemer, Tiina Penttinen and Susanne Thielemann in the roles of Franz Xaver Obertupfer, Emil Nikolaus Machullke, Nell and Lissy, respectively. Heidrun Göpfert adds hilarity as the old woman in a build-up akin to the “Keystone Cops.” A mish-mash ensues while she tries to seduce Kouta Räsäne’s Thunderbolt. Andreas Kindschuh holds firmly as the pragmatic engineer, Freidank while Thomas Mäthger tries to facilitate in the petrol delivery in his take as Joe M. Plumcake.

Frank Beermann’s invigorating direction draws out the many quirky dimensions of the music. We hear zany percussion and special effects, capriciously littered with varying dance rhythms such as a tempo di valse, foxtrot and gallop...it all becomes a chaotic mess, but the mess sets up as wonderful insanity.

Amidst all of the inane inflections, we come to another landing by way of a musical reprieve. Emil von Reznicek could certainly turn on the sentimentality switch: the “Interlude” is one of the longest stretches of orchestration, and during this listen one develops strong pathos for the scheming female protagonist. The music gives [one] a moment to cogitate all that has unfolded thus far, and it helps open the doors to the opera’s final conclusion. This “breather” is a mayhem respite, paying tribute to von Reznicek’s illustrious technique.

Michael Wittmann’s write-up is a bit prolix, but the read is enlightening. Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek may not be fully realized in the classical spectrum, but Benzin pockets with funky features of invention that will amuse and delight...give it a chance and it will brighten your day.

Christie Grimstad




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