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MILLÖCKER: Der Bettelstudent

spacer Zink, Kälin, Plech; Roschkowski, Henning-Jensen, Plassa, Milev; Chorus of Seefestspiele Mörbisch, Festival Orchester Mörbisch, Theimer. Production: Nürnberger. VL Klassik VLMD 020, 148 mins., subtitled

BettelstudentDVD

The discordant early-eighteenth-century Saxon occupation of Poland may not seem ideal fodder for a frothy late-nineteenth-century Viennese operetta, but that didn't faze Carl Millöcker, who snapped up a libretto rejected by Johann Strauss II, draped it in some delectably danceable music and came up with Der Bettelstudent (1882)one of the hardiest warhorses of its genre. Hardy, that is, in German-speaking lands, where it's been filmed and televised multiple times and a staging is seldom more than a comfortable drive away. Among Anglophones, this delicious comedy remains a relative rarity.

Like many other Yanks and Brits, I first heard of Millöcker by way of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose evergreen operetta recital of 1957 featured a pair of numbers from Die Dubarry,a 1930s reworking of his Gräfin Dubarry of 1879. If there's nothing in Der Bettelstudent that's quite so headily intoxicating as the latter's "Ich schenk' mein Herz," there are plenty of good tunes, and Bettelstudent's plot offered Millöcker ample opportunity to indulge both his romantic and his comic sides. Its gist: the Saxon governor of Krakow has been insulted in public by the eligible daughter of a down-at-heel Polish countess determined to marry her off to a noble Pole. In clever (he thinks) retaliation, he recruits a prisoner — a "beggar student" named Symon — to impersonate a nobleman and woo and wed the transgressive lass, intending to expose Symon postnuptially as the plebeian impostor he is. Of course, it doesn't turn out quite as the governor planned, and after much double-dealing on both sides the Saxons are routed and the onetime beggar is ennobled as a count.

Viewers of this 2013 recording should expect little in the way of onstage sobriety. The action unfolds outdoors on the city-block-wide stage of the Seefestspiele Mörbisch, moored on the western, Austrian shore of Lake Neusiedl, and it seems everyone on its panoramic floorboards is garbed in silly costumes and even sillier wigs. It's easy to imagine a more realistically nuanced staging than this one, but for a 6,000-seat, open-air space, with the audience separated from the performers by a small canal and the singers heavily (and visibly) miked, Ralf Nürnberger's broad strokes seem utterly apt. 

It's best to put aside, too, any thoughts of vocalism on a par with Rita Streich's and Nicolai Gedda's on the old Electrola recording; Cornelia Zink and Mirko Roschkowski just can't compete, in "Ich setz' den Fall" or elsewhere. Still, Roschkowski — a chubby but personable Symon — sings well enough; and if Zink's Laura occasionally shades from tart into sour, she manages her vertiginous headdress commendably. Gert Henning-Jensen is a nimbly skilled executant of his Spieltenor duties as Jan, opposite the amusingly played, horizontally wigged Bronislava of Daniela Kälin. Milko Milev (with another alarming coiffure) milks the requisite comedy from Ollendorf, the offended basso buffo, and Olaf Plassa, as the jailer Enterich, wields his crutch as well as he comically mangles names. Linda Plech, as Palmatica, the destitute countess, is another skilled comic, though I kept wishing (quite unfairly) that she were Martha Mödl, who played the role for German TV in 1970. Despite the vocal vagaries, the whole cast — chorus and dancers, too — seems to be having a grand time, and conductor Uwe Theimer makes sure those infectious rhythms keep on infecting. Even the post-performance display of fire- and waterworks comes through splendidly — a festive cap to a pleasurably entertaining show. spacer 

PATRICK DILLON

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3