Reviewed by Steve Schwartz
Ursula Pfitzner (Juanita Sanchez); Dietmar Kerschbaum (Juan Santos); Michael Kraus (Mr Jones); Carlo Hartmann (President Mendez); Wolfgang Gratschmaier (Ximenez); Rolf Haunstein (General Gardia Conchas), et al.
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper/Christoph Eberle.
Phoenix Edition 803 DVD TT: 138:00
In the early Thirties, Kurt Weill, on the run from the Nazis, found himself in Paris. A fellow refugee, Robert Vambery, proposed a theatre project – a political fable about arms-dealing and the political corruption that it engenders. The result was the opera Der Kuhhandel, a title with multiple definitions. Literally ‘cattle trading’, it also meant the shady deals of politicians in the Berliner slang of the Thirties – sort of equivalent to the American ‘horse trading’. Weill, one of the major innovators of theatre music, decided to invoke the spirit of Offenbach, since he was in Paris anyway. But the project failed to interest theatres in either Paris or Zurich, and Weill and Vambery more or less put it aside. In 1935, they tried for a West End production in London, with the title now A Kingdom for a Cow, with the libretto revamped into English by British pop writers Reginald Arkell and Desmond Carter, with both Weill’s and Vambery’s blessing. I’ve read some of the lyrics, and predictably they soften considerably the biting German original.
In spite of a sparkling score, the production flopped, and Weill, not a little annoyed, shelved the project for good, recycling a couple of themes for later work. A beguine, for example, became the basis for ‘September Song’ in Knickerbocker Holiday. In 1978, Weill’s assistant, Lys Symonette, created a performing version. This seems to have been the basis of the version on this DVD. There are, of course, little topical updates here and there – sometimes annoying, sometimes merely superfluous – but one expects that, especially today when directors and actors see themselves less as servants of the material and more as artistic forces in their own right. Often, they’re wrong.
I’ve seldom understand the purpose of a classical DVD, mainly because I hear, rather than look at, music. You’d think opera DVD would be a natural, but usually it provides an opportunity to see bad acting up close, as is the case here. The voices are, at best, so-so. Indeed, because I don’t really look at the credits before I listen, I thought this group resided in some German operatic backwater – Dusseldorf, for example. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was Vienna. Even the Lake Erie Opera in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, did better than this.
The direction has its bad and good points. The visual satire is much too heavy-handed for the material. Soldiers carry AK-47s (or clones thereof). Tactical missiles dot the stage. There’s the inevitable lame Nazi reference – in this case, half a swastika (you’d think even directors would recognise this as a cliché). For some reason, the national dress of the peasants in an obviously South American country is Lederhosen and Dirndls. On the other hand, it’s wonderfully seedy. The fictional setting is a poor, tropical country, so the look of the production is appropriate. There’s a by-now obligatory note of decadence in productions of Weill’s European work. Some ladies of the chorus dress butch, while some men dress as female whores. Also, the director has recognised that traditional opera acting styles won’t do and aims at something more knockabout. Unfortunately, the performers have no training in this manner and little familiarity with, say, Broadway style, but this isn’t really the director’s fault. The show could have used a Howard da Silva, a Kaye Ballard, a Phil Silvers, and a Sam Levine.
Nevertheless, the disc has its uses. This is the only recording of anything near the score that Weill wrote. People think they know Weill’s music, but when they think of him, they usually think of two works: Der Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Die Dreigroschenoper. Weill’s range is a lot bigger than that. The standard rap against Weill is that he sold out his European soul for Broadway gold. Although I fail to see why the composer of Lady in the Dark, ‘September Song’, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars has to apologise, I must say that Weill constantly expanded his idiom, even before the American exile. Indeed, Die Dreigroschenoper itself represents an expansion of Weill’s earlier idiom, grafting Twenties cabaret music onto a Busonian, Schoenbergian base. Here, the music has been leavened by Offenbach and, because of the South American setting, by Latin rhythms. It’s a wonderful score. The CD (on
Capriccio) isn’t complete and leaves out my favourite number, the ‘Pharaoh Song’, Offenbach’s ‘Kleinsach’ turned to bitterness. This DVD uses much more, if not all, of the score.
The English subtitles are embarrassingly careless, littered by typos, bad grammar, translatorese, and euphemism. Nevertheless, because this is the most complete recording of the score. I recommend it to Weill fanatics, like me.