“In der Heimat blüh’n die Rosen – nicht für mich den Heimatlosen”, sings Count Boleslav in his first big solo in Polnische Hochzeit: “In my home country roses are blossoming, but not for me, I am without a homeland.” These are words from the 1937 show, premiered in Switzerland, that could just as easily come from the biography of the composer himself.
Joseph Beer was born in 1908 in Lemberg (Lwów, Lviv). Back then, this was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, but 10 years later it was to become one of the most important cities of Poland. Beer studied in Vienna, after the “Anschluss” in 1938 he fled to France.
He first went to Paris. Helped by the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet he earned his living by writing music for the film Festival du Monde. After failing to reach the Unites States, he ended up in Nice. During his years in hiding Beer composed Stradella in Venice there, an opera in the verismo style (premiere Zurich, 1949), which turned out to be his final one. After the war Beer got the news that his parents were killed in Auschwitz. Also his friend, mentor and librettist of Polnische Hochzeit, Fritz Löhner-Beda, had not survived the camps.
In the early fifties Beer married Hanna Königsberg, also a Holocaust survivor (Königsberg fled Germany as a child, with her parents). Together with her and their two daughters he remained in Nice until his death in 1987.
Beer never got over the sad news of the loss of his family. He withdrew from public life and stopped composing. Instead, he threw himself into studying musicology. In 1966 he defended his thesis: ‘The Evolution of Harmonic Style in the Work of Scriabin.’
After the war, Polnische Hochzeit was never performed again. Beer himself refused to give permission. We can only guess why he did so, but apparently the confrontation with the operetta was too painful for him. The operetta and its subject matter were too close to his heart.
But Beer never denied his roots. According to his daughter Béatrice he always felt a Jew in the first place, and immediately after, a Pole. Not an Austrian, please, but also not a Frenchman. He lived in France for almost fifty years, and was declared a French citizen after the war, but his heart remained in Lwów, although he never saw that city again. He also spoke Polish fluently, which no doubt helped him to get the rhythms in his score right.
It is hard to believe, but Beer composed Polnische Hochzeit in only three weeks. Because of the difficult theater situation in Austria, the show was first presented in Switzerland – with a libretto by Kalman’s and Lehár’s co-authors Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda, who also collaborated with Abraham. The premiere in 1937 in Zurich was an immediate hit. It was translated into eight languages and had 40 subsequent productions elsewhere, outside of Nazi Germany.
Under the title Les Noces Polonaises the new production of the opera was planned for October 1, 1939, in the Théâtre du Châtelet. Jan Kiepura and Martha Eggerth were supposed to sing the leading roles, but a month before opening night the Nazis started World War II.
Polnische Hochzeit is a voluptuous operetta in the Viennese tradition. One can detect echoes of Emmerich Kálmán and Paul Abraham, but the score is also filled by Polish folk dances and Jewish melodies. But there are also many “modern” syncopated numbers, e.g. the duet “Katzenaugen” (Cat’s Eyes), a veritable Charleston.
What sets Polnische Hochzeit apart is the patriotic story set in 1830 Poland, a country occupied by the Russians. Childhood sweethearts Boleslav and Jadja meet once more when Boleslav returns home. Jadja is now engaged to Boleslav’s rich uncle Staschek, but the witty maid Suze (a female sort of Figaro) finds a way to untangle the engagement and get Boleslav and Jadja together in the end. Just think of Don Pasquale..
Nikolai Schukoff is someone I encounter more and more often in operettas, and that makes me very happy. His tenor is very suited for the genre, much more than for his usual Wagnerian repertoire which has left traces in his voice. They are not dramatic, but he needs time to vocally warm up (it’s a live recording). By the time he sings the mazurka “Polenland, mein Heimatland” (Poland, my home country) he – and his voice – are in full swing. He dazzles with some glorious top notes and demonstrates a great sense of rhythm. In this, he is perfectly supported by conductor Ulf Schirmer. And the longing and passionate way Schukoff sings “Du bist meine große Liebe” (You are my big love) is something even colleagues like Nicolai Gedda couldn’t top.
Teaser for the cpo CD “Polnische Hochzeit” by Joseph Beer with Nikolai Schukoff:
Martina Rüping is a wonderful Jadja. She sings “Wenn die Mädel zu Mazurka gehen” with warm soprano tones, and she adds a certain melancholy that is touching, as is the song itself. Just like the duet “Herz and Herz” (heart to heart). I melted away.
Michael Kupfer-Radecky is an impressive Count Staschek, and Susanne Bernhard a wonderful as Suze.
It’s certainly one of the best CPO operetta releases.
The 1st page of the young heroin Jadja’s gorgeous aria (Wunderbare Träume)
Béatrice Beer (composer’s daughter) sings Wunderbare Träume:
Martina Rüping, Susanne Bernhard, Nikolai Schukoff, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Mathias Hausmann e.a.
Chor des Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz; Münchner Rundfunkorchester olv Ulf Schirmer
English translation: Kevin Clarke and Remko Jas