fri 19/04/2024

Brundibár, Welsh National Opera review - bittersweet children's opera from the ghetto | reviews, news & interviews

Brundibár, Welsh National Opera review - bittersweet children's opera from the ghetto

Brundibár, Welsh National Opera review - bittersweet children's opera from the ghetto

Theresienstadt operetta brilliantly sung, wittily staged

Brundibár: children, organ-grinder and authorityJohan Persson

Politics, in case you may not have noticed, has been in the air of late: questions of escape, release, borders, refugees, things like that. So WNO’s June season of operas about freedom has been suspiciously well timed.

We’ve had the dead man walking (Jake Heggie’s opera, but you may have your own candidate), we’ve had Menotti’s visa opera The Consul, Dallapiccola’s study of hope deceived in Il prigioniero, and Beethoven’s of despair conquered by woman in Fidelio

To fit Hans Krása’s children’s operetta Brundibár into this topical gallery takes some special pleading, because although the piece itself ends happily, almost all the participants in the first performance of the definitive version (Theresienstadt, 1942) later died in Auschwitz, including the composer.

The Czech Krása had composed this half-hour fairy tale about two children who get the better of a thieving organ-grinder, with the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and a minor army of street urchins, in 1938 for a competition that never actually materialised. After an initial performance in a Prague Jewish orphanage in 1942, the performers all reconvened (unwillingly) in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where Krása rewrote his score for the small, heterogeneous group of instrumentalists unfortunate enough to be available. The result, recreated under such terrible circumstances, is a minor masterpiece of simple musical fun, beautifully conceived for child performers, tuneful, exquisitely scored for its curious band (four violins, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, guitar, accordion and percussion), and without a trace of condescension. The performance, by WNO Youth Opera conducted with intense commitment by WNO’s music director Tomáš Hanus and wittily staged by David Pountney and designer Bethany Seddon, was beyond praise. I’d love to mention every single member of the cast, but dare not, because the production was double cast, with no indication in the programme as to who was singing which of the three performances. But for the benefit of the children especially, I saw the five o’clock Sunday performance, and thought it superb, with choral singing of immaculate precision and unstinting enthusiasm. 

Watching and hearing children sing and act in this way is one of life’s great pleasures, and I’m thinking of the soloists as much as the chorus. I’ve not the slightest doubt that the other two performances were as good. The little orchestra (grown-ups) likewise played with supreme energy and polish.

In itself Brundibár (the name of the organ-grinding villain) is quite unpretentious; it was written and performed to lift the spirits of children and grown-ups in unknown, frightening peril, but makes no grandiose point about good conquering evil. It’s Hansel and Gretel cut down and transplanted to the ghetto. But it still seems hard to stage such a work without contextual embroidery. On the landing outside the Weston Studio of the Wales Millennium Centre was a touching exhibition of children’s paintings from the camps, and as we filed into the theatre we were all decked out with yellow neck bands by way of solidarity with the Jewish victims. At the end of the show there was a brief documentary film about Brundibár at Theresienstadt, and finally Hanus (whose mother sang in the Theresienstadt performance but somehow escaped with her life) gave a moving personal testimony of working on the piece and how it fulfilled a desire of many years.

One day, though, we shall listen to Krása and other holocaust victim-composers (Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas) without these appendixes, which – to put it mildly – are not essential. Krása was a highly gifted composer of chamber music, songs, and music for the stage, music of a specifically Jewish tone, recognisably in the tradition of Mahler, Schoenberg and Kurt Weill, yet completely individual and with a métier and aural sophistication at least the equal of theirs. The tragedy is that his life was cut short and much of his music lost. But enough remains to show us what might have been. Brundibár is merely a bittersweet way in.

A minor masterpiece of simple musical fun, beautifully conceived for child performers


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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