Long Beach Opera presents Robert Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik”

NEW REVIEW: SUNDAY, JANUARY 24

By David Gregson

LONG BEACH: January 23

Long Beach Opera has done it again – and this time to virtual perfection. Robert Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik” (1958) with its libretto by Lewis Allan, is a rare item that might pop up once in your lifetime if you’re lucky, and it was sheer pleasure to see and hear it so flawlessly realized last night in the Center Theater.

Despite the company’s reputation for startlingly innovative productions (most of which succeed, by the way) this is not a fashionably belabored and bewildering Regietheater monstrosity that hammers you with messages of seeming cultural relevance. This production – inventive, clever, funny and sometimes deeply moving — perfectly realizes its creators’ sardonic vision. This musical chronicle of an idiotic but perhaps very clever soldier who stumbles his way through a comically Kafkaesque version of World War I will certainly be marked in the annals of the LBO’s finest achievements.

One of the most striking things is the way everything comes together so well. The taxing part of Schweik, who is on the stage throughout all of the two-act opera’s 14 episodic scenes, finds an ideal interpreter in tenor Matthew DiBattista, who is surrounded by a wonderful, hard-working cast with nary a bad apple in the bunch. Always singing beautifully, DiBattista is passively funny most of the time, but most affecting in some numbers, especially “Who will go to war when it comes?”

Everyone but DiBattista has at least two roles to play – and they not only sing but dance along with a marvelous quartet of extras. Directed by Ken Roht, who also serves as choreographer, the production explodes with energy. Remarkably, for a show that is only running two performances, everything looked totally polished on opening night. The often kinetic comic shtick seemed oiled to perfection. Who knows what dreadful mistakes we did not notice!

Upstage behind a scrim that captured wonderfully appropriate, witty and expressive projections (Justin Jorgensen and Dan Weingarten are the set and lighting designers) we also hazily saw LBO’s artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek leading his superbly assembled band of 15 wind players and two percussionists. Heavily indebted to Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, and the Igor Stravinsky of “A Soldier’s Tale” and “Renard the Fox,” Kurka’s score is a delightfully tuneful one, full of pop and folk influences of every sort, and yet it all has its individual stamp. We even hear what appear to be quotes from Dvořák (in a manic “furiant” dance sequence), Gershwin and Shostakovich, but it’s all Kurka in the long run.

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“Who is this Schweik?” you may be asking. You may possibly still be asking that even after knowing the opera and bits of its sources. Czech humor, frankly, can be a little difficult to “get”. Black humor comes naturally to them, and the Czech sense of the ridiculous is highly acute. Two movies leap to mind: Jan Němec’s “The Party and Guests” (1966) and Ivan Passer’s “Intimate Lighting” (1965). And although Franz Kafka wrote in German, I have always suspected a grotesque Czech sense of humor at work in the long short-story “The Metamorphosis.”

Even passionate lovers of world literature who read voraciously are likely to have skipped Jaroslav Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War” (1932). English speakers with no Czech are more or less dependent on Cecil Parrott’s somewhat dispiriting translation which runs to a daunting 752 pages. It’s now widely available in an attractive paperback Penguin Books edition that includes the satirical anti-war novel’s original black and white illustrations by Josef Lada.

A much newer translation by Zenny K. Sadlon is, according to many of its passionate advocates, the only way to fly, but compared to the Penguin book, it’s more expensive and a little trickier to track down on the internet.

Despite all this, the Good Soldier is widely recognized as one of the great figures of 20th-century literature. Schweik (as his name is spelled in German) is a modern, absurdist type of the classical noble fool who crops up in such diverse places as Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot,” Wagner’s music drama “Parsifal,” and the films of Charlie Chaplin.

To be sure, this fool figure is not always funny. Jesus Christ with his redemptive message of love for all mankind is an archetype: his message is so simple and pure, to many it seems like sheer idiocy. Schweik is one of the funny characters, however, and like the others he is trapped in a world much crazier than he is. His function is to expose the folly of the people around him. In the context of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy during World War I, there’s plenty of folly to expose.

Kurka and Allan distill the first part of the book and many of the memorable characters appear in his two-hour long opera. And so I now have an opportunity to mention the LBO performers, all of them excellent.

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Tenor Alex Richardson sounded great and got some laughs both as the silly mustache twirling (and ultimately off of his face, actually) barfly government spy, Brettschneider, who arrests Schweik on a trumped up charge. Richardson is also good as the absurd Chaplain wearing a wig sillier than the mustache and insulting the “malingerers.” He later loses Schweik (as his orderly) in a game of cards with Lt. Lukasch, the excellent Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, who also plays an amusingly deranged Freudian psychologist.

Also arrested in the initial tavern sting is the innkeeper Palivec whose main crime is allowing flies to shit on the Emperor’s portrait. I loved baritone Benito Galindo in this part; and he also plays the hapless cuckold, General von Schwarzburg. Tenor John Atkins is fine as a malingerer and prisoner, and actor/bass-baritone Jesse Merlin is also quite funny as a military doctor and as Colonel von Zillergut. Zillergut loses his dog, Fox, to Schweik, who is, not incidentally, an expert dog thief and a faker of pedigrees. Zillergut and many other characters have one of the musical highlights of the opera – a giant ensemble with a barking dog obbligato.

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Soprano Suzan Hanson is delightful as Schweik’s cleaning woman who cannot get a sane response from him concerning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. She also has fun as Kati making love to Lt. Lukash. Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell offers a fine turn as the Baroness von Botzenheim who uses her social status to flummox the police and get Schweik out of a jam. And bass-baritone Mark Bringelson grabs one’s attention both as a sergeant and a consumptive.

The second and final showing comes all too soon – this coming weekend. Someone should videograph it. Seriously. It would become a classic.

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PERFORMANCES

Sat. Jan., 23, 2010 – 8pm
Center Theater, Long Beach

Sat. Jan., 30, 2010 – 4pm
Barnum Hall, Santa Monica

Duration: 2 1/2 hours, 1 intermission
Sung in English with English Supertitles

Alex Richardson, Jeremy Huw Williams, Matthew DiBattista, Jesse Merlin. Keith Ian Polakoff.Cast:
Schweik: Matthew DiBattista
Brettschneider: Chaplain Alex Richardson
Lukasch/Psycologist: Jeremy Huw Williams
Palivec/Schwarzburg: Benito Galindo
Malingerer/Prisoner: John Atkins
Military Doctor/Zillergut: Jesse Merlin
Mrs. Mueller/Kati: Suzan Hanson
Baronin v. Botzenheim: Peabody Southwell
Sergeant/Consumptive: Mark Bringelson

Conductor and production:
Andreas Mitisek – Conductor
Ken Roht – Director & Choreographer
Justin Jorgensen – Set Design
Marcy Hiratzka – Costume Design
Dan Weingarten – Lighting Design

For more, see the Long Beach Opera website.

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