The Complete Lotte Schöne. Arias, duets, and songs by Benedict, Brahms, Chausson, Debussy, Donizetti, S. Jones, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Millöcker, Mozart, Puccini, Ravel, Reger, Rossini, Roussel, Rubinstein, Schubert, Schumann, Josef Strauss, Johann Strauss, R. Strauss, Thomas, Verdi, von Schmidt, von Suppé, Wolf, and Zeller. Lotte Schoene, soprano; with Marcel Wittrisch, tenor; Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, Herbert Janssen, baritones. Dorel Handman, Hertha Klust, Hermann Weigert, pianists; Leo Blech, Piero Coppola, Felix Günther, Erich Orthmann, Clemens Schamlsich, Hermann Weigert, Fritz Zweig, conductors. Berlin State Opera Orchestra and unidentified studio orchestras. Marston 55002-2 (five CDs) Total time: 5:49:05.
DIGITAL REVIEW – Austrian-born lyric-coloratura soprano Lotte Schöne (1891-1977) enjoyed a substantial European career in opera, operetta, and recital. She made some benchmark recordings, and her singing is hailed in the initial pages of J. B. Steane’s magisterial 1992 book Voices: Singers & Critics for her “charm and distinction.” Steane expresses a wish: “We must petition some enterprising company to bring out a compact disc, reviving lovely things from the roles of Liù, Pamina, Gilda, Manon and Frau Fluth [the soprano lead of Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiben von Windsor].” Well, the ever-enterprising Marston Records has done just that and more, collecting Schöne’s entire recorded output (1921-50) in as well-repaired acoustic condition as we’re likely to hear it.
If not for history and politics (plus a wish to preserve her domestic life), Schöne might be better known. Top international recorded sopranos singing similar repertoire during Schöne’s heyday included Selma Kurz, Amelita Galli-Curci, Maria Barrientos, Maria Ivogün, Elisabeth Schumann, Lucrezia Bori, and Eidé Norena. All but the first pursued major North American performance careers, which accounts for their being more familiar names to American collectors a century on. On the evidence of Schöne’s recordings, she steadily improved her artistry and vocal command throughout the 1920s; many of her best recordings derive from the years just before the coming of Nazism derailed all Jewish artists’ German stage careers and access to recording studios. Besides interpretive sparkle, her vocal distinction lies in technical security and easy access to free-floating top notes.
André Tubeuf’s typically florid booklet essay offers many fascinating aperçus but suffers from poor organization, essentially starting with the Nazi ascent ending Schöne’s stellar Berlin career before turning not unchauvinistically for several pages to the details of her French years: professional, personal (“…she chose to remember only her long solitary walks in the woods, where she had been able to come closer to Schubert’s heart”), and anecdotal (her receiving audience applause and greeting Karl Böhm in the greenroom at Die Frau ohne Schatten‘ 1972 Paris première).
Only then — for Paris was the goal and center of every artist’s journey – do we hear of her beginnings. Already married and a mother after studying voice as a teen, the former Charlotte Bodenstein joined the Vienna Volksoper for five seasons before fully transferring her center of activities to the more prestigious Hofoper (renamed the Staatsoper in 1921, when the Austrian Republic commenced). Some of Tubeuf’s facts seem off. He cites a 1917 Papagena as her Hofoper debut; the house’s online archives document her 1913 bow as Marie, the ingenue in Albert Lortzing’s 1837 Zar und Zimmermann opposite Richard Mayr, who created Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), in which she herself sang one of the offstage Unborn Children’s voices.
In Vienna, Schöne sang several Richard Strauss roles, including Margret in Feuersnot, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, and both Najade and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos under the composer’s baton. Her recorded legacy, frustratingly, contains far more Johann Strauss II than Richard Strauss, of whose work she left only two songs (“Schlechtes Wetter” and “Ständchen,” cheerily recorded with pianist Felix Günther in May 1924.) At the leading Viennese opera house, the Bavarian Strauss also led her in Bastien and Bastienne, Così fan tutte, and Der Freischütz; other major operatic conductors she worked with there were Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Clemens Krauss, and Franz Schalk.
Her Viennese roles initially included small assignments like Najade, the Tannhäuser Shepherd, and Carmen‘s Frasquita; as her renown increased and her abilities as singer and actress grew more manifest, the managements deployed her in assignments like Mozart’s Cherubino and Despina, Donizetti’s Norina, and Verdi’s Gilda and Oscar. All five roles are represented on these recordings, some in the original Italian and some in the German translations Schöne standardly used even in large centers like Vienna and Berlin.
She left Vienna’s opera stages in 1926, never to return, though she was a Salzburg Festival regular from 1922 to 1934. Tubeuf states that Schumann took her place in the festival’s first-ever opera, Don Giovanni under Strauss; but actually Schöne’s Zerlina performed alongside two other supreme artists whom, ironically, the Anschluss would displace from Austria forever on “racial” grounds: Rose Pauly (Anna) and Richard Tauber (Ottavio). At Salzburg, in addition to Strauss and Schalk, she worked — usually with top international artists in the original languages of a given opera – with Karl Muck and Bruno Walter. Walter’s mentoring made her the toast of Berlin’s State Opera until Hitler’s accession; she found time to appear in Italy, Belgium, and, for one season (1927), at Covent Garden as Marzelline (Fidelio) and Liù in the British premiere of Turandot. Her readings of Liù’s heartbreaking arias sustain their reputation, glowing in sound with beautifully shaded dynamics, and a straightforward pathos which also marks her Zauberflöte and Manon arias.
In an emotional register far removed are her scintillating, for the time unusually complete recordings of Don Pasquale’s Norina/Malatesta duet with the compelling Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano Brigitte’s father), recorded both in Italian and German. The soprano has the better Italian.
Though naturally less Latinate than the classic Bori/Giuseppe de Luca reading, the artists don’t miss many tricks vocally or emotionally. Schöne clearly brought remarkable brio to operetta as well, a good thing as there’s loads of it here. Beyond the usual Adèle and Johann Strauss songs, she offers some little-heard gems, like the lilting “Ja, dort in den Bergen drin” from Carl Zeller’s 1894 Der Obersteiger (The Foreman).
We also sample Sidney Jones’ 1896 The Geisha, a knock-off of The Mikado that proved an instant international hit in Germany, the Russian Empire (Anton Chekhov sets a scene in his moving 1899 story “Lady with a Lapdog” at a provincial performance), and the U.S. It conquered Broadway in 1896-7 (with the 19-year-old Isadora Duncan in the ensemble), returning in 1913 and 1931 revivals, the latter starring as “Mimosa” Tokyo-born Hizi Koyke (1902-1991) – a then-famous Cio-Cio-San across the United States, signally with the touring San Carlo company but also at the Chicago and San Francisco Operas. (The Geisha is – one hopes – beyond unrevivable today, but Koyke’s story as a bravely pioneering Nikkei artist whose career went on hold during World War II deserves, like Schöne’s, to be told.) The diminutive Schöne won acclaim as both Jones’ and Puccini’s geishas. Her Mimosa goes down easily, without undue artifice. Cio-Cio-San’s second act solos (in German) bespeak deep feeling – vulnerability and resolve – while beautifully connecting legato phrases in a way not all her Central European rivals could manage.
The considerable merits of Nicolai’s 1849 vehicle for Sir John Falstaff have been largely overshadowed by Verdi and Boito’s 1893 masterwork. Though New York City Opera had a long-running production that framed William Wildermann’s errant knight and Frau Fluths from Phyllis Curtin through Carol Vaness, one is more likely in recent decades to hear even Salieri’s 1799 Falstaff than Die lustige Weiber. But some of Nicolai’s music is delightful, notably the “earworm” tenor aria for Fenton and the scene “Nun eilt herbei!” for Frau Fluth (Shakespeare’s Alice Ford). Steane is right: Schöne’s version, recorded in 1930 in Berlin, bubbles with precisely limned high spirits while displaying how her instrument had expanded while remaining capable of accuracy in bel cantesque fioriture, trills, and runs. Famous as her frequent colleague Lotte Lehmann’s reading of this piece is, to me Schöne outdoes her in musicality, equaling the modern standard for the piece by Helen Donath on Rafael Kubelík’s complete Weiber recording.
Marston offers two CDs of material previously impossible (or nearly so) to access. There are finely calibrated Wolf lieder from 1934 with an unknown pianist, showing a rare mastery of this supremely tricky miniaturist’s oeuvre. Lieder performance standards changed after the 1920s; salon orchestra accompaniment vanished, and Schöne adheres far more strictly to rhythm than in her earlier Strauss and Brahms readings. We hear undated, sometimes technically iffy private recordings, largely of operetta material and Christmas songs (including Reger’s haunting “Marias Wiegenlied,” which excuses some of the tedium he inflicted elsewhere). Two 1948 French radio song broadcasts, largely Schumann, show the depredations of her age (56) and the anguish she’d suffered in wartime hiding under stressful conditions. But the stylistic mastery and musicianship are sovereign and deeply moving; her uppermost notes remain free.
That Schöne took her refuge, France, to heart shines through in the Gallic style displayed in the first of two May 1950 broadcasts in Berlin’s American sector with the gifted pianist Hertha Klust. Here the engineering is better, but her vocal condition has deteriorated. In the mélodies by 20th-century French composers, one hears the linguistic aplomb that made her 1929 Mélisande welcome at Paris’ Opéra-Comique. There are some glowing phrases, but she tires, as also happens in the final Schumann program from two days later. Still, it’s remarkable to hear these deeply committed tributes to German culture by a sensitive artist who suffered so much in its cause.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.