Tribuna Musical: Weill-Brecht and Stravinsky, witnesses of a troubled era

Tribuna Musical:  lunes, marzo 07, 2016
Weill-Brecht and Stravinsky, witnesses of a troubled era
1927, Baden-Baden: première of “Mahagonny-Gesänge”, “Songspiel”; in three parts, 23 minutes. Music by Kurt Weill, texts by Bertolt Brecht.

Born in the declining years of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, after the disastrous hyperinflation of 1923, this small masterpìece shows in a nutshell the tremendous nihilism of a shaken society seen with a Communist bias. In 1925 Berg´s “Wozzeck” gave us the most finished portrait of anguish and misery in operatic history. By 1929 the rise of the Nazis was uncontrollable, though four years ealpsed before Hitler was named Chancellor.

            Weill and Brecht expanded the short piece into a full-length Singspiel (spoken and sung) in that same year 1927 : “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny” (“Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny”) and converted it into a bona fide opera in 1930. I bought  in 1956 the first integral recording (conductor Brückner-Rüggeberg) and was stunned: a  revelation. So I was happy when it was premièred at the Colón in 1987 and revived in 2002. And now it is announced for 2017. It figures: Argentina is prone to recurrent major problems and this is the ideal crisis opera.

            1917, Stravinsky´s “L´histoire du soldat” (“The soldier´s tale” ) is premièred in

Switzerland, where the composer is living poorly due to WWI and the confiscation of her family´s patrimony by the Bolsheviks. This was four years after his “Rite of Spring” changed the History of Music. The text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz is based on a Russian folk tale about a soldier  on leave tempted by the Devil; the Soldier gives him a violin and receives in exchange a book that reads by itself and shows the future.  In the end, the Devil  wins…

            This piece for a Narrator, actors playing the Soldier and the Devil and a dancer (the Princess) has wonderfully inventive music for seven instruments (the composer extracted later a Suite from it).  The folk tale is ingenuous rather than ingenious but it has charm if properly done.  It was often staged in BA and I saw my first in the early Fifties. During the last two years four different productions were seen; I wrote about one of them, with Les Luthiers and Barenboim.

            This year the Colón has launched a Summer Season and of course, in principle it should be a good thing. But obviously venues matter, and so do choices of repertoire.  Well, the venue chosen for most of it is open air with amplification: the Plaza Vaticano next to the Colón.  “Mahagonny” cries out for a small theatre or a big tavern and amplification is quite wrong for it. On the other hand, “Histoire” was designed to be ambulatory, so it can be accepted in the open air.

            As to the choice, the moot point is that both productions are presented by the Colón but have been seen elsewhere in recent years without that theatre´s auspices, so it was a matter of simply taking advantage of ready-made productions.

            Weill-Brecht and this particular piece  have been close to Marcelo Lombardero´s preferences since the start of his career as a producer and he has presented it in several occasions: the seedy, scurvy ambience, the social criticism, its angry attacks on capitalism, its mix of realism and surrealism, suit his instincts; and the cast, practically identical I believe to the one seen at the Usina del Arte a couple of years ago, is wonderful both acting and singing. The two whores are  done with plenty of insight by soprano María Victoria Gaeta and mezzosoprano Cecilia Pastawski: in their voices the “Alabama Song” and “Benares Song”, bittersweet jewels, have near-ideal versions. And the four men who have gone to Mahagonny for easy money, booze and women, are sung and acted with great dramatic presence by tenors Pablo Pollitzer (in very good voice) and Santiago Burgi, whilst baritone Mariano Fernández Bustinza and bass Juan Pablo Labourdette sang with powerful delivery and splendid material.

            The very good small orchestra was perfectly handled by Pedro Pablo Prudencio, giving Weill´s music the cutting edge it needs. Lombardero´s team saw eye to eye with him: Noelia González Svoboda (stage design), Luciana Gutman (costumes) and Horacio Efron (lighting).

            As “Mahagonny” is short we were offered a fine selection of fragments from other Weill-Brecht collaborations: “Die Dreigroschenoper” and “Happy End” (from it, the haunting “Surabaya Johnny”) with the same admirable singers and players.

            The translation  and adaptation by Beatriz Sarlo of “L´Histoire du Soldat” seems to me misguided: it doesn´t respect the original: here the Narrator does not only his part but also the Devil and the Soldier; and there isn´t one dancer but three, for both the Soldier and the Devil dance. Listen in their marvelous 1962 recording what Jean Cocteau as the Narrator and Peter Ustinov do as the Devil to feel the enormous difference with the exaggerated and shouty interpretation of Pompeyo Audivert.

            The instrumental side was decently done, with violinist Daniel Robuschi especially good but trumpet player Osvaldo Lacunza below his best level, perhaps because he didn´t play the part in a cornet, as in the original. Correct conducting by Santiago Santero. Paradoxically the added choreography and dancing was a plus factor: fine dancers (Ramiro Cortez, Juan González, Paula Almirón) in dramatically well-imagined steps by Edgardo Mercado. I fail to understand what was the contribution of Martín Bauer as Stage Director.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Tribuna Musical: Weill-Brecht and Stravinsky, witnesses of a troubled era

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