Degenerate, but brilliant – Krenek’s Three Short Operas prove timeless in Frankfurt

GermanyGermany Krenek, Three Short Operas: Soloists, Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester / Lothar Zagrosek (conductor), Opera Frankfurt, Frankfurt, 1.11.2019. (RP)

Davide Damiani (King) in The Secret Kingdom
© Barbara Aumüller

Director – David Hermann
Sets – Jo Schramm
Costumes – Katharina Tasch
Lighting – Olaf Winter
Chorus master – Markus Ehmann
Dramaturge – Mareike Wink


The Dictator (Tragic Opera in One Act Op.49)
Dictator – Davide Damiani
Charlotte – Angela Vallone
Officer – Vincent Wolfsteiner
Maria – Juanita Lascarro

Heavyweight or The Honor of a Nation (Burlesque Opera in One Act Op.55)
Adam Ochsenschwanz – Barnaby Rea
Evelyne – Barbara Zechmeister
Gaston – Jonathan Abernethy
Professor Himmelhuber – Danylo Matviienko
Anna Maria Himmelhuber – Judita Nagyová
Journalist / Senior Civil Servant – Michael McCown

The Secret Kingdom, (Fairy Tale Opera in One Act Op.50)
King – Davide Damiani
Queen – Ambur Braid
Jester – Sebastian Geyer
Rebel – Peter Marsh
Three Ladies – Florina Ilie, Julia Moorman, Judita Nagyová
First Revolutionary – Tianji Lin
Second Revolutionary – Pilgoo Kang
Guard – Jonathan Abernethy

It was operas like these that made Ernst Krenek persona non grata with the Nazis, but Jonny spielt auf came first. Performed over 400 times across Europe in the year after its February 1927 premiere, Nazi propagandists would later use Jonny to embody all that was wrong with contemporary music and art. In 1938, the year of the Nazi’s infamous degenerate art exhibition, Krenek sought refuge in America, where New York audiences and critics had found Jonny boring, Krenek’s jazz style not the real thing, and interracial relationships as Verboten there as in Germany. Seldom staged, Jonny spielt auf is considered one of the most important twentieth-century operas that hardly anyone has seen.

All the more reason to rejoice over Oper Frankfurt’s revival of its 2017 production which combines Krenek’s three one-act operas composed immediately after Jonny spielt auf: The Dictator (1926), The Secret Kingdom (1927) and Heavyweight or The Honor of a Nation (1927). Director David Hermann’s witty, colorful and penetrating realization for Oper Frankfurt was voted Rediscovery of the Year at the 2018 International Opera Awards in London. The operas, which Krenek did not intend to form a trilogy, focus on strong men and, especially, the potent aphrodisiac of their power. Hermann linked them through the single character of a megalomaniac, first in the guise of a dictator and ultimately as a king who, when deposed, finds solace in nature.

In The Dictator, the ruler is a charismatic, authoritarian despot whom Krenek modeled after Mussolini: the embodiment of a type who is, as Krenek wrote, ‘the supreme specimen of men who are at home in the world’. Heedless of his wife Charlotte’s pleas not to start another war, the dictator fends off Maria’s assassination attempt, only to see the female assailant shot rather than him. It’s the dictator’s sexual potency – the would-be assassin yields to his animal magnetism – that attracted Krenek to Mussolini, not the Italian dictator’s brutal authoritarian ways.

A German ambassador’s comment that channel swimmers and similar national heroes won more international respect for Germany then did its artists and scholars inspired Krenek to compose Heavyweight. At the time, German boxer Max Schmelling, who would later be heavyweight champion of the world, had become an overnight sensation in America. Some might have taken the ambassador’s words as a warning, but Krenek chose to respond with satire.

In the opera, the vainglorious boxer Max Ochsenschwanz is cuckolded by his wife, who is having an affair with her dancing instructor under the pretense that he is preparing her for a Charleston dance marathon. When the dictator is spotted in the audience, rebels see an opportunity to kill him, and the comely Anna Maria Himmelhuber lures him on stage. A government official arrives to announce that Ochsenschwanz has been selected to represent Germany in the Olympics and is truly the pride of the nation. In Hermann’s version, the dictator twirls about in an electric exercise machine as the boxer detonates a bomb.

The Secret Kingdom finds the king and his queen, accompanied by the court jester, besieged in a bunker. Musically, it is the most sophisticated of the three operas as it drifts from tonality to atonality in an eclectic style that encompasses Mozart, Strauss, Puccini and Les Six, as well as the tango sequence where the queen’s three ladies try to seduce the court jester, to whom the king has given his crown. The queen wins the crown in a card game and uses her newfound power to foolishly free the imprisoned rebels. As the crowds enter the bunker, king, queen and jester escape through a tunnel, arriving in a forest where the queen is magically transformed into a tree. Upon hearing his wife’s disembodied voice, the king discovers his true kingdom – a quest that his fool had previously posed to him in a riddle – to serve nature in all of her splendor.

Hermann didn’t update the operas, but the parallels between the past and present are readily apparent as nationalism is again the prevailing political zeitgeist. The settings are functional with the most fanciful being the burlesque theater in which Heavyweight is set and the mystical green forest where the king ultimately finds peace. The dictator’s office is stark and monumental, but it is the bunker that is the harshest indictment of the megalomania of such men. It gives one pause to remember that in the late 1920s Krenek had no idea of the fates that awaited Hitler and Mussolini.

For the central figure in this trilogy, Hermann created a character that was Shakespearean in spirit and which baritone Davide Damiani embodied magnificently, evolving from a pompous, blood-thirsty despot into a retrospective monarch, disillusioned with power, who evoked King Lear. The final scene finds both Krenek and Hermann at their most philosophical, and here Damiani addressed his thoughts to the jester’s cloak, a lion’s head mask and faux fur cape with which he had disguised himself to escape his pursuers. The fall from power had been quick and brutal, but Damiani’s transformation into a benign king of the forest was gradual and mystical.

The women were a fascinating mix, whose edginess elevated them from being one-dimensional clichés. The dictator’s aggrieved wife, Charlotte, portrayed by Angela Vallone, was pretty much an airless bimbo until she shot a hole through the Maria of Juanita Lascarro, whose sultry voice seethed with passion both as a dissident seeking revenge for the senseless atrocities of the dictator’s wars and a woman who suddenly succumbed to his machismo. In Heavyweight, Barbara Zechmeister was brainless and flirtatious as Evelyne, Ochsenschwanz’s two-timing wife, but Judita Nagyová emanated a devious brilliance as she plotted the dictator’s demise. Outrageously costumed in shades of green, the queen’s frivolity quickly evolved into a thirst for power, with Ambur Braid tossing off coloratura and high notes like fireworks.

The men were an equally fascinating lot. In The Dictator, heroic tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner played the officer blinded by gas while fighting in a senseless war, whose plight ignited the thirst for revenge in his wife. As the prize fighter, bass Barnaby Rea had a spiky seediness that cut against type, but his voice was a winner. Attired in a sparkly magenta dance outfit with orange trim, tenor Jonathan Abernethy was mere fluff compared to the boxer, but he has a fine voice and got the girl. In The Secret Kingdom, Peter March revealed a gleaming, free-flowing tenor in his brief appearance as the rebel, while Peter Marsh, with his unbeatable combination of wisdom, wit and physical agility, reached Shakespearean heights as the king’s jester.

Krenek’s music is eclectic; he seemed to absorb everything that he heard. Especially in Heavyweight, the score is peppered with the sounds of brass, woodwinds and percussion, including a banjo. In the myriad of styles that Krenek threw at them, the orchestra under the baton of Lothar Zagrosek played with precision and lightness, at times adding as much humor to the performances as the onstage antics.

The obvious Soviet counterpart to Krenek was Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1936, Shostakovich was condemned by Soviet authorities for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This same weekend, Opera Frankfurt will premiere its new production of Shostakovich’s opera, now considered one of his finest works. Ironic, isn’t it, that the dictators and their regimes have turned to ash, but the music that they found so unsettling has survived. Krenek, who died in California in 1991, lived long enough to have appreciated the absurdity of it all.

Rick Perdian

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