When Mieczyslaw Weinberg staged his new two-act opera Masel tov – in German, Wir Gratulieren! – in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s he was still facing anti-Semitism after a lifetime of disruption and oppression. He had the extreme bad fortune to have lived under two totalitarian regimes. As a Polish Jew in Warsaw he was forced to flee the Nazi invasion, ending up in Stalin’s Russia. His parents and sisters were left behind and perished in a concentration camp.

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In Moscow, like all Soviet artists, he had to walk the creative tightrope, faring better than his friend Shostakovich. Even 20 years after Stalin’s death he was watchful when he turned to Russian Jewish author Sholem Aleichem’s story Masel tov. Dubbed the “Jewish Mark Twain”, Aleichem is best known for his character Tevye the milkman in Fiddler On The Roof.

Weinberg highlighted the Socialist aspects of this downstairs “kitchen revolution” set in a Russian aristocratic house preparing for a society wedding. But he left intact the Aleichem’s vivid language and humour. He also added some of the writer’s self-penned tributes on his gravestone in New York, thus creating a homage to his own librettist. Such a pity, then, that this otherwise excellent German recording premiere has no English translation in its liner notes!

Recorded live in 2012 in Berlin, the score is stripped down to 11 instruments and is played superbly by Kammerakademie Potsdam under Vladimir Stoupel. Woodwind and brass dominate in Henry Koch’s annotation, giving it a feeling of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, but with the strong influences of Shostakovich and Bartók.

The soloists are all excellent. US tenor Jeff Martin is bright and expressive as the book seller Reb Alter who can’t make a sale to card-playing aristocrats; Canadian contralto Olivia Saragosa excels and gets the best one-liners as widowed cook Beylya, who plays off nicely against next door’s maid Fradl (German soprano Anna Gutter) and her fiancé Chaim (German-American baritone Robert Elibay-Hartog). Brazilian soprano Katia Guedas is barely stretched as the one-dimensional Madame.

The music is lively and attractive, and Weinberg ensures the action never lags.

But may miss too much unless you are fluent in German, however, you can get the English version here.

Composer: Weinberg
Work: Wir Gratulieren!
Performer: Soloists, Kammerakademie Potsdam/Vladimir Stoupel
Label: OEHMS Classics OC 990

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