Johann Strauss Jr.: Jabuka (complete operetta); Dance Arrangements from Jabuka. Thomas Tischler (Mirko von Gradinaz), Wolfgang Veith (Vasil von Gradinaz), Michael Schober (Mischa), Veronika Groiss (Jelka), Elisabeth Wolfbauer (Petrija; Annita), Helmut Josef Ettl (Bamboro); Franz Födinger (Joschko); Gaudeamus Choir Brno and European Johann Strauss Orchestra conducted by Christian Pollack.
Johann Strauss Jr. had almost no sense of the theater. He had a great sense of the theatrical, but that is quite another thing. Strauss was marvelous at turning waltzes into miniature playlets, making them symphonic in structure and having them appear to tell stories even as he kept them supremely danceable. But when it came to creating works for the stage, he was by and large a disaster. Die Fledermaus, his most popular operetta and by far his best, works because the whole thing is built around a party, giving Strauss numerous opportunities to create dances while tossing in some mock heroics in the scenes leading up to the on-stage gaiety. Among his other operettas, only Der Zigeunerbaron has retained a following, and then solely because its wonderful tunes make it easy to forget the tub-thumping absurdities of the story (one of the brightest, bounciest songs is about soldiers joyfully killing each other). But what about the rest of Strauss’ 16 stage works – 17 if you count the posthumous pastiche, Wiener Blut? Most dwell in the obscurity that has long claimed Jabuka, and on the basis of this work’s theatrical elements, most deserve to.
But the music decidedly does not deserve to languish, and that makes this first-ever recording of Jabuka a significant event, and a delight to own for anyone who loves Strauss’ way with a dance and a couplet. Jabuka is also known as Das Apfelfest (“The Apple Festival”), and is about a charming custom in a Serbian town: once a year, each young boy picks an apple, takes a bite and hands it to his chosen girl. If she bites it in turn, they are betrothed. This has almost nothing to do with the plot of Jabuka, which is about two noble but impoverished brothers who come to the festival in the hope of finding rich brides and who – wonder of wonders – manage to do just that. The pairing of the operetta’s second couple, Vasil and Annita, goes off without a hitch, but the work’s complications really turn on a taming-of-the-shrew plot involving Mirko and Jelka – who cannot stand her suitor until a sudden change of heart at the end of the last act that is even more unbelievable than usual in operetta. The other major plot points involve Joschko, a bailiff whose job is to seize debtors’ property – and who loves what he does. He’s a delightful character, amoral and money-hungry, quite willing to help Mirko and Vasil land their sweethearts and then seize their castle (after posing, at their behest, as a rich magnate). This is one case in which the lack of a libretto with the recording does not matter very much: the summary of the absurd actions is quite enough to go by, and the wonderful tunes that pervade Jabuka are the reason to own the CDs (although it would be nice to know just what Joschko sings in his couplets, and just why he sneezes repeatedly in the finale of Act I). On balance, it is fine to forget the plot – Strauss apparently did, going merrily along writing delightful music while his two librettists (Max Kalbeck and Gustav Davis) fought over whether Jabuka should be an opera or operetta (with the result that it sounds like a bit of both).
The performers here, a number of them students at Christian Pollack’s opera class at the Vienna Conservatory, have pleasing voices and a pleasing manner of delivering their lines and relating to each other. The orchestra, assembled especially for this performance, plays Strauss idiomatically and with enthusiasm, and the Gaudeamus Choir Brno handles the choral parts with aplomb. Pollack again proves himself a marvelously adept conductor of this era’s music – his recordings sparkle like champagne. And there is a wonderful bonus after the 90-minute Jabuka: an additional 45 minutes of Strauss dance music based on tunes from the operetta, previously released on various CDs and now available all together in this highly appropriate context. All seven pieces are played by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice), with Pollack conducting five of them: Das Comitat geht in die Hoh’! Polka schnell; Tanze mit dem Besenstiel! Polka française; Sonnenblume, Polka-Mazur; Jabuka-Quadrille; and Jabuka Potpourri No. 1. The other two works are conducted in much more foursquare fashion by Johannes Wildner: Ich bin dir gut! Walzer and Zivio! Marsch. Even in those two, though, Strauss’ music shines, as indeed it does throughout Jabuka, despite the fact that the operetta, as a theatrical work, is such a confused mishmash that its obscurity is – on that level – entirely understandable.