Thursday, 23 January 2020

Magic Bagpipes ! Jaromír Weinberger : Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer

From Saturday 25th January on Operavision, "the last operetta of the Weimar Era", Jaromír Weinberger's Spring Storm (Frühlingsstürme) commissioned for Berlin’s Admiralspalast, which premiered a few days before January 30th 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, thereby ending the creative flourish that marked the early years of the 20th century.  To prepare I've been revisting Weinberger's Švanda dudák a Czech libretto by Miloš Kareš, which premiered in Prague in 1927 followed by the German premiere in Breslau in 1928, in a translation by Max Brod.  Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer was a smash hit, particularly in German speaking countries.  Boosey & Hawkes describes it thus: "The strikingly folksy and yet anything but old-fashioned opera that makes enormous demands on the performers. It is not a “comic opera” for light voices and a mere municipal theater orchestra. The great  conductors of the time, such as Erich Kleiber and Clemens Krauss, stood on the rostrum. It is significant that Weinberger was particularly acclaimed by the German public of the Weimar Republic, that is to say, in a heady phase between the stiff imperial era and the culturally narrow-minded, dull “Third Reich.

Notice, "It is not a comic opera".  Schwanda, who plays the dudelsack (Bohemian bagpipes)  and Dorota are newlyweds happy in their innocence. One day a stranger hides in the house while Schwanda is out at work. The robber is Babinsky, but like so many crooks he has the gift of the gab. He tells Schwanda about glamorous places and adventures and persuades Schwanda to come away with him right away. They head to the palace so Schwanda can play for the Queen to cheer her up. What he doesn't know is that the reason the Queen's heart is as cold as ice is that she sold her soul to a strange Magician. For a moment he awakes her feelings and everyone breaks into a merry polka. But the Queen can't actually love without needing to possess. Sign of a psychopath ! When she hears that Schwanda's married, she condemns him to death. He's saved at the last moment by Babinsky (who wants a way to grab the Queen's diamonds). Dorota's jealous, so Schwanda says he'll go to hell if he's ever kissed the Queen. But he did, when enchanted,  and goes to hell. The Magician knows the source of the magic : the powers of the Dudelsack, and its music. (Bohemian bagpipes have strong cultural symbolism.) In Hell, the Devil challenges Schwanda and Babinsky to a card game -another ancient meme that runs through Central and Eastern European tradition. Wonderfully demonic music. The Devil assumes he'll win, as usual, but Babinsky beats him by being an even bigger conman. Schwanda's freed, returning to Dorota with his Dudelsack, while Babinsky carries on scamming.

Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer is still in the repertoire and gets done fairly frequently. There was a good production at the Semperoper, Dresden in 2016 (Please read more about that HERE). Weinberg was a close associate of Max Reger, which is why he's an adopted Dresden  favourite.  There are also several good reecordings. I like the 1948 one conducted by Winfried Zillig in Frankfurt in 1948. Performance wise it's more rough and ready than the later Hans Wallberg, though Wallberg has a glamour cast of  big name stars - Lucia Popp, Siegfried Jerusalem, Hermann Prey etc. But  the livelier approach of Zillig seems to suit the work better. This isn't necessarily a vehicle for elegant operatic display, it's too earthy and too pointedly pungent.  I love this opera so much. A few years back I had one of those endless nightmares where you go round in circles but can't escape. Suddenly, Schwanda to the rescue ! His music and cheerful nature got me back on track right away !

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