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by George Hall

She could sing, she could act, and she looked stunning too. George Hall reviews a new CD double album which surveys the extraordinary career of Marta Eggerth, described as the 'Callas of operetta'

Spanning 70 years of recording (1932-2002), this fascinating double album celebrates the remarkable phenomenon of Marta Eggerth. Born in Budapest in 1912, Eggerth was a vocal Wunderkind, studying and singing the highlights of the coloratura soprano repertoire at an early age. She was already touring as a teenager, soon moving into what would become her specialist field - operetta (she sang Adele in Max Reinhardt's celebrated Hamburg production of Die Fledermaus at the age of 17).

During the 1930's, she entered the world of films. As several photographs in this beautifully produced set amply demonstrate, she was a glamour girl. But she was a glamour girl with a voice who could act. It was a pretty formidable combination. In all, Eggerth made some 30 movies, and it was on the set of one of these, the 1934 Mein Herz ruft nach dir, that she met another star, the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, whom she married two years later.

One of the great tenors of the 20th century, Kiepura had the same combination of talents as Eggerth - voice, looks, acting ability - and in their day these two were even starrier than a certain married couple of singers of the present day. They can be heard together here in a duet from Lehár's Der Zarewitsch, but it was in The Merry Widow, in particular, that they reached audiences all over America and Europe, eventually singing over 2000 performances of the piece in five languages. Kiepura died, at an early age, in 1966, and for a while Eggerth stopped singing. But then she resumed - and she has continued ever since.

There is some remarkable archival material here. Firstly, there are some examples of Eggerth's prowess in the operatic repertoire, with tracks by Rossini, Puccini (souvenirs of both Mimì and Musetta in La Bohème) and Bellini - a rather curious arrangement of "Casta diva' taken from a 1935 movie. Then we move on to operetta and musical films, including numbers by such leading lights as Lehár, Kálmán, Robert Stolz, Fritz Kreisler, Paul Abrahám - all of whom, incidentally, composed especially for her.

Among the more recent items here are three of Chopin's songs, finely accompanied by her concert pianist son, Marjan Kiepura, himself something of a specialist in that composer. There's also an item from Cabaret, and some operetta arrangements by Eggerth herself. In short a wealth of material. Operetta fans, in particular, will not want to miss it, because here is the authentic period flavour; the classic 1930s recordings come up marvellously in Roger Beardsley's transfers. But the whole collection proves to be well worth hearing, because of the remarkable spirit and personality of Marta Eggerth, which shines out of every track, old or new. It was Marcel Prawy, the leading Austrian opera and operetta expert, who described Eggerth, in a conversation I had with him, as 'the Callas of operetta'. This collection allows us to hear what he meant, and Eggerth's performances can be summed up in three words: style, style, style!

Marta Eggerth: My Life, My Song
Patria Productions KIE3000
2 CDs 131 mins. ***

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