The music of Antonín Dvořák has brought into my singing life perhaps the most pure joy. Dvořák’s blend of sophistication and rustic folk traditions yields melodies that are like rivers; you start floating among that beauty and you never want it to stop. One of the most inspiring and heart wrenchingly beautiful performances I ever had the honor to be a part of was NYFOS’s Dvořák and the American Soul (2012, repeated from 2002). This program examined the work of Dvořák arising from his stay in America. It featured the music of Henry Burleigh and considered the two composers’ influence on one another. Beyond this concert, singing Rusalka has been tremendous privilege and my fondest memory. Dvořák can make you ache at the beauty of what he’s written, breaking your heart and gifting you with the deepest appreciation of the musical art and its connection to humanity.
My Song of the Day is “Dobrú noc, má mila” (“Good Night, My Darling”), the first one in the cycle, “V národním tonu” (In Folk Manner), op 73. The text is taken from a Slovalk folk song, but Dvořák preserved only some melodic elements from the original, which he developed into an expansive, soulful melody. My chosen performances is by Lucia Popp.
Good night, my darling,
Let God himself
Be your Guardian.
Good night, sleep well,
I wish you only
Dream yourself a dream, please do,
When you get up, give the dream credence,
That I love you, that my heart
I give to you.
The final group of songs in Act I of “The Art of Pleasure” is simply called “Romance,” and that gave me an opportunity to program the steamy duet “Schön wie die blaue Sommernacht” from Lehár’s Giuditta.
When it comes to high-calorie, high-fat romance, there’s no one quite like Viennese operetta icon Franz Lehár. His stage-works create a world of unmarried blonde women, tenors whose lasciviousness skirts the overtly creepy, and a passel of supporting players who are usually less wealthy and less Viennese. Once hugely popular, these old-fashioned operettas have largely faded from view. I have seen only one of Lehár’s pieces onstage, the ubiquitous Merry Widow which I used to call The Merry Window because I found it so empty. (I’ve softened a bit on the subject.)
The ethos of these works may have passed their use-by date, though some clever stage director may once again find a contemporary relevance in them. In the meantime, we can still float on the cream of Lehár’s music, which evokes erotic heat with the best of them. “Giuditta” was his swan-song. Like Offenbach, Lehár longed to write a serious work, one without the usual happy ending. “Giuditta” was as close as he came to a grand opera. It used a large orchestra and received a big send-off: 120 radio stations broadcast the 1938 premiere, and the show got 42 performances in its first outing. But history was against it. After the Anschluß, its two box-office stars Jarmila Novotna and Richard Tauber left Vienna. The fizz went out of the cocktail, and “Giuditta” disappeared.
Its most famous number is the soprano aria “Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiß,” sung by the heroine in the fourth tableau after her love affair with the tenor has run its course. But we’re dipping into the full heat of their romance with the Act II duet “Schön wie die Sommernacht.” Giuditta has left her basso buffo husband and run away to North Africa with her army officer lover Octavio. The sexy tango Lehár wrote is not exactly a North African dance, but is evokes the liberation of these two European ex-pats, newly freed from the shackles of small-town Italy and marriage.
Here’s my favorite recording of it, with the young Hilde Gueden sounding luxuriantly post-coital. She is partnered by the doughty tenor Karl Friedrich. Gueden’s voice was a fixture of my early record-listening, a radiant, free-flowing sound, occasionally a bit blowsy and disorganized—perfect for GIuditta. Friedrich was a much-employed singer during the war years, with a voice whose limitations remind me of Tauber (a similarly mouthy, boiled-beef timbre) but a rock-solid technique and dyed-in-the-wool sense of style. You can practically hear the waxed moustache in his tenorial ardor.
And for the curious, here’s the young Lucia Popp with the veteran Rudolf Schock. A bit brisker and less sexy, but so beautiful. Popp could be celestial, especially in those early years. And Schock floats a high C# at the end. Now are you curious?
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