No Joke! “The Polish Wedding” Will Knock Your Socks Off!

beer

BEER: Polnische Hochzeit / Martina Rüping, soprano (Jadja); Susanne Bernhard, soprano (Suza); Florence Losseau, mezzo-soprano (Stasi); Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Count Boleslav Zagorsky); Michael Kupfer-Radecky, baritone (Count Staschek Zagorsky); Mathias Hausmann, baritone (Casimir von Kawietzky); Bernhard Spingler, bass-baritone (Sergius Korrosoff); Friedemann Röhlig, bass (Baron Mietek Oginsky); Alexander Kiechle, bass (Stani); Gärtnerplatz State Theater Chorus; Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor / CPO 444 059-2 (live: Munich, November 21-22, 2015)

Here’s a surprise for lovers of Viennese operetta: a stunning and surprisingly original work by a then-24-year-old composer, Joseph Beer, who was the sensation of Austria for a short time but whose career mysteriously dwindled into nothingness. A musical prodigy, Beer was so admired when at the Vienna State Academy of Music that he was allowed to skip the first four years of study, and director Joseph Marx took him personally under his wing. The liner notes suggest that Beer’s turn to operetta music disappointed Marx, but the latter supported him nonetheless. The change of career came from a tour of Palestine in 1930, where Beer met a musician who asked him to play the music of fellow-composers to Fritz Löhner-Beda, an enthusiastic Zionist and the most successful operetta librettist in Vienna (he wrote the libretto for Lehár’s Giuditta), when he returned to Austria. Löhner-Beda was bored by the music Beer played him, until he asked him if he had anything of his own. This music so excited the librettist that he offered to take Beer under his wing and offered to collaborate with him. This eventually led to Polská Svatba or Polnische Hochzeit as it was titled in German. It was a sensation at its premiere.

Some of the music in the early going of this operetta is a bit on the stodgy side, but Beer’s keen ear for orchestral color keeps things moving and interesting. Eventually we get a fun mixture of Polish and Austrian dance rhythms, and the whole thing picks up. From a musical standpoint, I would put The Polish Wedding on as high a pedestal as Millöcker’s classic Der Bettelstudent, and that is the highest praise I can give it. The most surprising number in the whole piece, however, has to be the Act 2 duet and chorus, “Katzenaugen,” which has a definite Charleston beat and sounds like something from the Ziegfeld Follies or George White’s Scandals of 1927. You talk about frou-frou music! Even as a listener, you feel like kicking up your heels and dancing. And you should hear the audience (this is a live performance at the Prince Regent Theatre in Munich) go nuts at the end of it! In fact, a couple of other numbers later in the operetta also bear the mark of Jazz-Age musical style, and it is to the credit of all concerned that they do not sing or play this music stiffly at all.

So what happened to Joseph Beer? He was planning to mount a production of Polnische Hochzeit in Vienna in 1939 with the “dream team” of tenor Jan Kiepura and his wife, Martha Eggerth, when the Nazis started World War II. Fortunately Beer, who was Jewish, was spared when the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet helped him escape to Paris, where he plied his trade writing orchestral arrangements and the score for the film Festival du Monde. He wanted to come to the U.S. to teach music but never got any further than Nice, where he hid until the end of the war. While in hiding he wrote a verismo-styled opera, Stradella in Venice, which finally premiered in Zurich in 1949. After this, however, Beer withdrew from public life, crushed by the news that his parents had died in Auschwitz—as had his mentor, Löhner-Beda. He did, however, continue to compose, mostly instrumental and sacred works for his own edification, with no thought of public performance. According to the notes, he married another Holocaust survivor, Hanna Königsberg, in the early 1950s and lived a secluded life with her and their two daughters in Nice. He resumed his musicological studies, and in 1966 wrote a doctoral dissertation on the evolution of Scriabin’s harmonic style—that was never published. He died in 1987, often refusing to allow The Polish Wedding to be performed except in Scandinavia where it became an almost annual tradition. It was just too painful for him to revisit.

The plot is your typically convoluted operetta, revolving around love triangles, titled landowners, and a Polish freedom fighter masquerading as a poor laborer. Let me try to summarize it:

Act 1. Poland at the time of the Russian occupation, pre-1830. Harvest festivities are going on at the estate of Baron Oginsky. Casimir wonders if the tough hellcat Suza, who runs the estate, would approve of this. To get money, Oginsky suggests that his daughter Jadja marry Count Boleslav Zaogrsky’s uncle, but Jadja is really in love with Boleslav—the freedom fighter, who sneaks back to the estate with his companion Stasi under the assumed name of Jan Barutzki. He and Jadja get together and swear eternal love while Suza has arrived, is not amused, but cuddles up to her boyfriend Casimir.

The drunken, misogynist Count Staschek arrives and asks Oginsky if Jadja has consented to marry him. Everybody dances (hey,. it’s a harvest festival, remember?). Staschek and Oginsky, coming back from a big dinner, surprise Jadja and Boleslav, who reveals his real identity and demands to marry her. When a Russian captain arrives in search of Boleslav, however, Staschek refuses to betray him as long as Jadja agrees to marry him instead of Boleslav. The plot thickens!

Act 2. The Oginsky estate is preparing for Jadja’s wedding while Suza tells Boleslav that she can provide him and Jadja with a stagecoach to help them elope across the border. Suza then orders Casimir to get Staschek drunk before the ceremony so he will notice nothing. When Staschek finally wonders where his fiancee is, with the wedding about to begin, Suza tells him Jadja has eloped, but the crafty Count has sent a coach of his own to go and chase the happy couple and bring them back.

Jadja sings a sad lament before going off to be married to Staschek, but Suza has one more surprise in store: she is the one wearing the wedding dress and veil, thus she is the one who marries Staschek!

Act 3. Suza has both verbally abused and physically thrashed Staschek. Groaning in pain, he curses women. Casimir comes to say goodbye to Suza, who explains that she will make Staschek’s life a living hell until he agrees to a divorce…on her terms. Eventually under pressure, Staschek tells Oginsky to pay Boleslav his inheritance and lets Suza go. The happy couple are now free to marry while Staschek gives up women altogether in favor of booze.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer has the full measure of this delightful piece under the tip of his baton, the orchestra plays its heart out, and all of our singers have good voices, particularly tenor Nikolai Schukoff as Boleslav (Nicolai Gedda or Fritz Wunderlich would have had a ball with this part!) and both sopranos, Martina Rüping and Susanne Bernhard. But not only good, firm, attractive voices, but wonder of wonders, perfect diction! You can make out every syllable as if it were etched in glass with acid. And what brio they all have!

This is an absolutely thrilling and ear-opening release, the kind of operetta that makes you scratch your head and wonder why people still listen to the highly overrated Die Fledermaus when something like this is available. Well, because it hasn’t been available…but maybe now that will change. If you have any room in your heart for lighthearted music with a kick, Polnische Hochzeit has to be in your music collection.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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