On record: Weinberg: Wir Gratulieren! (Congratulations!) – Vladimir Stoupel (Oehms Classics)

Weinberg arr. Henry Koch
Wir Gratulieren! (Congratulations! orig. Mazl tov!) Op.111 (1975)

Beylya – Olivia Saragosa (contralto), Reb Alter – Jeff Martin (tenor) Khaim – Robert Elibay-Hartog (baritone) Fradl – Anna Gütter (soprano) Madame – Katia Guedes (soprano), Kammerakademie Potsdam / Vladimir Stoupel

Producer Hein Laabs Engineer Henri Thaon
Recorded 23 September 2012, Werner-Otto-Saal, Konzerthaus, Berlin

Oehms Classics OC990 [two discs, 80’23”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Oehms Classics issues this first recording of a one-act opera by Mieczysław Weinberg, taken from a live performance in Berlin to the German translation by Ulrike Patow, as adapted by the composer from the drama by Sholom Aleichem (indirectly of Fiddler on the Roof fame).

What’s the music like?

Those having heard Weinberg’s first opera, the powerfully dramatic The Passenger (Neos or ArtHaus), or his last, the darkly inward The Idiot (Pan Classics) will find Mazl tov! something different again.

By the mid-1970s, the composer felt able to pen an intrinsically Jewish opera with recourse to the song and dance idioms familiar from the Yiddish theatre of his Warsaw youth, and a decidedly sardonic tone not far removed from the interwar stage works of Weill or Eisler. Any risk of provoking Soviet officialdom was offset by a vein of Socialist optimism in the ‘masters versus servants’ scenario, culminating in a ‘things will be different’ outcome. Divided into two acts (55 and 25 minutes), the narrative allows for incremental though subtle development of the four protagonists as they move as if pre-destined to their double wedding.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that this music, played in an adept reduction for chamber orchestra by Henry Koch, is itself characterful as well as ideally suited to the domestic tragicomedy at hand. Each of the four main singers is allotted their share of the limelight, without these soliloquys either detracting from or impeding the onward flow of the drama, and those familiar with Weinberg will detect various motifs or phrases that re-emerge in the symphonies and string quartets he was to write across the next decade – making for a work as central to his output as any other.

As to the cast, Olivia Saragosa brings no mean pathos to the cook Beylya, recently widowed and in thrall to an ungrateful mistress, while Jeff Martin evinces humour and no little stealth as Reb Alter, the travelling bookseller whose radical thinking motivates all those around him. Robert Elibay-Hartog is no less persuasive in the role of Khaim, servant from a neighbouring estate whose charm and panache gradually win over the maid Fradl, whose initial monologue summons the most affecting music of the entire opera and who arguably emerges as the most liberated by the close. Katia Guedes is equally arresting as Madame, her cameo appearances galvanizing the drama not least in the final scene as she is faced down by her moral superiors. Note that Weinberg’s alternative, more expressively ambivalent ending is used at this point.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Vladimir Stoupel secures a vibrant response from the musicians of Kammerakademie Potsdam, heard to advantage within the confines of the chamber hall at Berlin’s Konzerthaus, even if those demands of a live performance mean balance with the singers is not consistent. The booklet is attractively produced with full artist biographies and production sketches, but Arno Lücker’s introductory note is only adequate and the German-only libretto has numerous entries printed under the wrong singer. An English translation is available online (see below).

Hopefully, an alternative recording or production of Mazl tov! – preferably with the original orchestration and in Russian – will emerge in due course. For now, however, this lively and capable production should engage and amuse listeners as audibly as it did its Berlin audience.

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