Millöcker’s musical comedy is a staple of Vienna Volksoper repertory, who give it a traditional period dress production, wisely as it’s based in 18th century Polish Cracow. So there’s a historical subtext- the fight for Polish independence against their German masters- beneath this romantic comedy. Musically it’s full of “eminently hummable polkas, krakowiaks, polonaises, marches, and waltzes and brilliantly constructed and scored” (Richard Traubner.)
The lush romantic overture- a pot-pourri of Der Bettelstudent’s surprisingly familiar melodies- is used to set the scene, Anatol Preissler’s imaginative production for Vienna Volksoper is never tacky, but tasteful. A globe fills the stage, homing in on Cracow in 2016, and through postcards, leading us back to 1704. We are treated to a classic ballet sequence, Vienna State Ballet male dancers enacting a baroque fantasy. There’s polished playing from Vienna Volksoper orchestra under Guido Mancusi.
By contrast, at the front of the prison, jailer Enterich (Boris Eder) is busy confiscating the gifts, food and money brought by the prisoners’ wives. Good man Enterich, don’t be such a raging madman! He looks like a pirate. A group of Saxon officers- a weird bunch of aristocratic degenerates, they’re the baddies- announce Colonel Ollendorf, Governor of Cracow’s visit. Ollendorf, sung by Morten Frank Larsen, has the operetta’s big hit ,Ich hab’ sie nur auf die Schulter geküsst. He only kissed her on the shoulder, and she hit him with her fan! (The Countess won’t have her daughter Laura marrying a braggart.) Ollendorf, a social-climber, the ‘respected hero’, considers himself slighted.
So, in Ollendorf’s revenge scam, two students are released, Symon (Lucian Krasznec, a thrilling lyric tenor) to pose as ‘Prince Wybicki’, and Jan (David Sitka, another competent tenor) as his servant. So, Ollendorf sings, the game begins, his revenge plan in place. (Das Spiel began…es greift unser Racheplan.) The memory of it still makes him shudder, to be so insulted!
Imagine students imprisoned for debt! Krasznec’s Symon sings, protesting he’s only a poor student – ‘he’s no beggar, but in debt’ – and at first swears at Ollendorf. Swindler, and hypocrite! Then, can you get us pardoned; really a Duke? – All he has to do is to marry a woman for his freedom!
The Ladies at the Cracow Spring Fair, Countess Nowalski (Sulie Giardi) and her daughters, are a snobbish lot. They’re out shopping. With ‘Ooh and ah’, they’ll only pretend to buy. Actually, they’re broke , they’ve spent the last of their money on Laura’s (Anja-nina Bahrmann) dress. Potatoes from America are newly in vogue, (it being the 18th century), so Bronislava, the younger sister (Anita Götz), obviously starving, stuffs her pretty face.
‘Prince Wybicki’ is supposed to be fabulously wealthy – a millionaire, perhaps more!- and, he’s travelled the globe. Yet sings of the praises of Polish women, Die schöne Polen. Krasznec’s is a pedigree tenor: he’s got real stage presence. Laura is spellbound, he -in the scam- asks her to marry him, and she accepts without hesitation. He sings of tears of delight, she counters affirming jubilant joy, Bahremens an exquisitely light soprano.
Meanwhile, (Act 2), with Laura preparing for her wedding, the Countess and her daughters are like panto dames counting their fortune. Jan,(Sitka)- remember he’s Symon’s sidekick- confesses his love for Bronislava, and asks for her hand in marriage. Their duet is a highlight: I ask just for one thing of you, love me true, and the moving, In love I bind myself to you, unser Bund geweiht.
Equally powerful, Symon and Laura’s duet. Krasznec, in his aria, wonders if he should speak out or remain silent. She sings, ‘what’s on his mind’. But how does he tell her the truth? Supposing I was a vagabond, just supposing, he sings. She counters, even if he were poor, or in disgrace, love doesn’t think of such things.
Bronislava accepts the discovery they are, after all, both students. Hardly bothered if her Prince is only a beggar.(Der Fürst soll nur ein Bettel sein und mich ruhrt es kaum. But Symon notwithstanding writes the Countess a letter of confession, which the meanie Ollendorf keeps until after the wedding for his revenge.
Preissler’s Vienna Volksoper production is distinguished by its set pieces with sensational choreography for the famous Bettelstudent Polka in Act 2 featuring Vienna State Ballet dancers. The wedding staging is impressive, the ballroom’s minimal props, lifted by a tapestry backdrop.
The light, sometimes slapstick, comedy in the first Act is replaced by a more serious tone. At the wedding reception Symon is exposed publicly for only a beggar student, and Laura is disgraced. But in the complicated plot Jan consoles the love-sick Symon when he enthuses over Poland’s cause. He is in fact a Polish Duke – a freedom fighter for Poland’s independence from Saxon occupation. And with Symon’s help, he escapes to join the uprising.
The denouement is spectacular. In the March for the Fatherland (Marsch für’s Vaterland) , the stage is dominated by the national symbol of Poland in gold, suspended against a red , then blue backdrop, with cannon effects proclaiming the success of the uprising. This being a comedy, the two pairs of lovers are re-united, Laura declares she loves for Symon whoever he may be, and the stage is packed for the Finale, the patriotic chorus Befreit das Land! The lavish costumes attest to a class production. In Millöcker’s best known masterpiece Der Bettelstudent there is so much to discover, and this Vienna Volksoper production is something of a revelation. P.R. 2017
Photos: Lucian Krasznec (Symon Rymanowicz), Elizabeth Flechl (Countess Nowalski), and Martin Winkler (Governor Ollendorf); Boris Eder (Enterich); Martin Winkler (Ollendorf), Lucian Krasznec (Symon),Alexander Pinderak (Jan Janicki)
(c) Barbara Palffy / Volksoper Wien
Unfortunately photos for all the May 2017 cast were not available.