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Szymanowski lottery PRCD2039

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Lottery for Husbands, that is Fiancé No. 69, or the First Prize, operetta in three acts (1908-1909)
Wiesław Ochman (tenor), Charly
Marcin Bronikowski (baritone), Darly
Rafał Bartmiński (tenor), Sarah
Ewa Biegas (soprano), Miss Huck
Urszula Kryger (mezzo soprano), an impresario
Adam Kruszewski (baritone), Sherlock Holmes
Piotr Kusiewicz (tenor), Mrs Troodwood
Anna Lubańska (mezzo soprano), President of the Merry Widowers’ Club
The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble “Camerata Silesia”/Anna Szostak
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice/Michał Klauza
rec. February 2011, Upper Silesian Centre of Culture, Grzegorz Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland
Booklet contains a list of solo and choral numbers, with historical and biographical essays in Polish and English.

In April 1908, Szymanowski was desperately worried about his finances, after he had overspent on his recent visit to Italy. He decided that the best way to make money was to try to cash in on the huge Viennese popularity of operetta. On 30th December 1905, Lehár’s The Merry Widow opened in Vienna, and went on to run for 483 performances and take a tour in Austria. Szymanowski might well have seen it, or heard about its astonishing success, given his musical contacts and the fact that he visited Vienna quite often. He had no experience of writing for the stage, but after some hesitation decided upon a libretto written by the actor Julian Maszyński.

His initial enthusiasm for the new project, communicated to his friend Grzegorz Fitelberg, gradually faded. By April 1909, he was regarding its composition as a chore. In his biography The Music of Szymanowski (Kahn & Averill, 1990), Jim Samson quotes the composer’s comment that he had to mobilise all his energies to complete the work: “it haunts me like a dark omen, but I decided to finish it with clenched teeth”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the work was never performed. The score remained in two forms: a full score without the dialogue, whose copy survived World War 2, and an unsigned piano reduction. With some relief, Szymanowski moved on to compose the Prelude and Fugue for Piano, the Six songs Op.20, the Bunte Lieder Op.22, and the Second Symphony Op.19.

The following two paragraphs are a precis of the synopsis in Alistair Wightman’s Karol Szymanowski, His Life and Work (Ashgate Press, 1999).
In a public park in America in contemporary times, an impresario announces that a lottery is to be held, and the prize is a man, thus making matchmaking unnecessary. All can enter: young, old, widows, mothers-in-law, members of the Old Maids Club and The Merry Widowers. The president of the latter sings a cakewalk: “no matter how bad it is in hell, it’s worse on earth with a wife”.

Mrs Troodwood is anxious about her daughter, and so buys a ticket. Sarah dreams of love. Her romance is a slow waltz, also sung in act two by the aged Miss Huck who says in a chanson that she will abandon her cat in preference for a man. Charly and Darly are working as photographers. Darly falls for Sarah and hopes to win her, so he joins the list of prizes. He actually wins her heart when photographing her. The operetta closes with their marriage, which is opposed by his father, who sings an Offenbach-like number: he complains that the current female fashion prevents a man from studying the female form. Much better are tight dresses!

This bag of nonsense reads as an ideal subject for a witty, light-hearted operetta. Szymanowski knew of the genre requirements, so he includes a march and a cakewalk, a quadrille and waltzes. He remarked to Fitelberg that he could not always be dealing with higher matters. It is a pity that this work is not better known, because it shines an unsuspected light on Szymanowski’s musical character. In fact, it is some years since I read a biography, and I forgot the existence of the piece. If anyone had asked me about a Szymanowski operetta, I would have dismissed the idea that so very serious a composer would have ventured down that route.

On this showing, I doubt if he had the ability to compose the sort of truly memorable tune that made the best operettas popular. Now, I do not wish to denigrate Lehár. To be able to compose memorable tunes and use them in stage works is a gift that by no means every composer has. On the other hand, Lehár almost certainly could not and would not have wanted to compose an opera like King Roger, or a symphony like Song of the Night, or a Stabat Mater like Szymanowski’s amazing Op.53, who perhaps really should not have attempted to step into Lehár’s world.

The music in Lottery for Husbands has the sort of light-hearted spirit that some expect in operettas, if not for all of their duration. It bounces along in a frothy bubble, occasionally pausing for a solo vocal interlude. As I have noted, I do not think that Szymanowski’s melodies are special enough to carry the piece, despite the effective orchestration which would, incidentally, probably make staging it an expensive business. A brilliant performance could carry it to success, but I doubt that audience members would leave the opera house humming the tunes. The genre is not one that I usually visit, although I confess to a weakness for The Student Prince sung by Mario Lanza.

Polish Radio are to be commended for rescuing the work from oblivion, and for issuing this disc. It shows a commitment to Polish music that the BBC lacks regarding British compositions. The performance is splendid in every respect, with no weak points in the cast, and the Camerata Silesia chorus is clearly a first-class ensemble, as evidenced by their touring history. The recording is excellent, with good balances between soloist, chorus and orchestra.

The booklet does not contain a libretto, nor is there an act-by-act synopsis. The general action and notable points are mentioned in the article devoted to the piece. It points out the composer’s use of parody of American popular melodies. In the choral serenade under Sarah’s window, there also is a parody of Moniuszko’s one-act opera Verbum nobile. The article also refers to the occasional use of Wagnerian leitmotif. There is a list of the numbers with their timings, and each is given a separate track. If your CD player can display track information, the ‘action’ of the song is shown (e.g., Cakewalk). The booklet is in Polish and English, and is beautifully presented in a gatefold case.

Jim Westhead

Additional cast members

Krzysztof Szmyt (tenor), Djep
Karol Lizak (tenor), member of the Pessimists’ Club
Łukasz Smołka (bass), Jack
Jaroslaw Kitala [member of Camerata Silesia]
Michał Wajda-Chłopicki (countertenor), Tinker
Sarah’s friends: Ewelina Szybilska (soprano), Kerry; Anna Leśniewska (soprano), Fanny; Anna Borucka (mezzo soprano), Molly; Agata Schmidt (mezzo soprano), Lotti; Aleksandra Poniszowska [member of Camerata Silesia], Mimi
Janusz Styszko, Łukasz Nowak, Bogusław Kowalski [members of the Camerata Silesia], Black Men 1, 2, 3

Published: October 28, 2022

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