Four Off-the-Radar Chamber Operas

United StatesUnited States Hindemith, Weill, Krása and Ullmann: Soloists, University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music / Cincinnati Chamber Music Ensemble, Cohen Family Studio Theatre, Cincinnati, Ohio. 24/26.10.2014 (RDA)

October 24

Paul Hindemith: Hin und zurück
Kurt Weill: Mahagonny Songspiel

Production and Cast:
Musical directors: Rhett Lei and Levi Hammer
Stage director: Frances Rabalais
Cast: T.J. Capobianco, Harry Greenleaf, Stephen Hanna, John Humphrey, Kari Jensen, Jacob Kincaide, Jillian Mc Green, Tara Morrow, Brandon Russell, Robert Stahley

October 26

Hans Krása: Brundibar
Viktor Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis
Production and Cast:

Conductor: Yael Front
Director: Omer Ben Saidia
Cast: Simon Barrad, Christopher Brandon Morales, Jonathan Cooper, Benjamin Eglian, Sydney Gabbard, Elise Hurwitz, Alexandra Kassouf, Lauren McAllister, Shawn Mlinek

Kurt Weill, the bespectacled son of a conservative Jewish family had a dual creative genius. The Apollonian side gave birth to several of his works for the concert stage, but the Dionysian one drew him to the gritty world of Bertold Brecht and the cabaret dives and unheated theaters of the Berlin of the 1920’s, where he would soon meet his life-long companion, Lotte Lenya.

Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel uses bits and pieces from Brecht’s writings and teachings, among them the so-called Verfremdungseffekt (infelicitously often translated as “alienation effect”) which posits that by keeping the audience aware that they are witnessing a theatrical event, and by using music inappropriate to the dramatic situation on stage, the composer, librettist and stage director can better convey the subtleties of meaning that the spectator experiences. Weill also embraces some of Paul Hindemith’s democratizing principles of Gebrauchmusik, which make for a compelling theatrical event. The spectator is kept from sentimentalizing the stage action, which is often interrupted by direct address to the audience, either in the form of song, recitation, plain speech or projected announcements of what is just about to happen.

Cincinnati Conservatory of Music’s double bill, which included Paul Hindemith’s Hin und zurück, was given a bare-bones production in the intimate Cohen Family Studio Theatre, imaginatively directed by Francis Rabalais, and idiomatically played by Levi Hammer and Rhett Lei. Scenic elements were kept simple for both operas, and costumes were hand-me-down items from the costume-shop or the performers’ closets. What matters here is the singing actor, and the cast of ten excellent young talents served more than well the intentions of both the composers and the production team.

In the Weill, the semi-spoken, semi-sung “Oh Moon of Alabama” is there, as well as the finale, both of which he would later re-appropriate for his bigger Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. They are iconic reminders of this once-elusive Weill style now within arm’s reach of the talented cast.

The Hindemith piece is a ten-minute curtain opener whose BI is to demonstrate how a stage work can be constructed in the same fashion as a retrograde canonic musical form that begins here, goes there and then returns whence it came. Hindemith keeps it lively and short, about ten minutes.

Under the title The Theresienstadt Project, the Cincinnati Chamber Opera presented a double-bill of Hans Krása’s Brundibar and Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, strongly staged by Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia and sensitively conducted by fellow Israeli Yael Front, who firmly led a small ensemble of 3 strings, 2 woodwinds, trumpet, percussion and the protean Stephen Variannes at the keyboards.

These two chamber operas are filled with historical connotations that transcend their short duration and their seeming simplicity. Theresienstadt (“Terezin” in Czech) was a concentration camp established by the Nazis during World War II, where thousands of men, women and children were relocated—over 150,000 at one point—many dying from malnutrition and disease, the rest being sent off to Treblinka, Auschwitz, and other extermination camps. Brundibar, a little children’s opera with a big heart, was written prior to Krása’s arrest and his internment in Terezin, where he set out to make life more bearable for his fellow inmates by composing and organizing musical performances.  Using the musical talents of the inmates, including many children, he produced fifty performances of his opera. Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis was also written at Terezin, but prevented from being performed during the life of its composer, who died in Auschwitz. It was not until 1975 that Ullmann’s opera finally had its premiere.

Brundibar is an allegory about music and its struggles against the evil force of the title character, a money-grabbing organ grinder. Eventually the power of music wins, and Pepicek and Aninka are able to buy the much-needed milk they need to take to their ailing mother. In contrast, Der Kaiser von Atlantis is a symbolic “legend in four scenes” about Death on a self-imposed strike-cum-holiday during which the forces of life and death are pitted against each other, neither a clear-cut winner. The music is singable, melodic, and interspersed with passages that hint at folksiness. On the other hand, Der Kaiser von Atlantis is rooted in pre-war German musical expressionism: severe, declamatory and decidedly middle-European in sensibility.

Performing nineteen roles in both operas, the cast of nine enthusiastically embodied everything from a cat, a dog and a sparrow to the figures of Death (the impressive Jonathan Cooper), Harlequin (sung by Shawn Mlynek with a plangent lyric tenor voice) and an Emperor (read: Hitler), the latter splendidly sung notwithstanding the role’s wickedly high tessitura by Simon Barrad. Bass-baritone Christopher Brandon Morales showed versatility in his zany take on the role of Brundibar and later very fine in his handling of the mix of Sprechstimme and angular vocalism demanded by the part of the Lautsprecher.

The two operas were produced with flair and finesse by Shawn Mlynek and Autumn West, who seem to have all the right ingredients at their fingertips: taste, imagination, a wonderful pool of gifted singing actors, and the growing support of the community for these worthy and out-of-the-ordinary offerings.

Rafael de Acha

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