Brundibar Again

BRUNDIBAR AGAIN. Five years ago the L.A. Opera’s Opera Camp project staged this endearing small  concentration-camp relic at a church in Santa Monica. Since then the work – by Hans Krasa, to a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, has had a career of its own. There’s a picture book by the eminent designer Maurice Sendak, which has also inspired the décor for stage productions. The story, if you can call it that, tells of how the children of the village outshouted the village minstrel (Brundibar by name), so that people threw money at them and made it possible for Little Joe to buy milk for his ailing mother. Okay? There is now a prequel, “Friedl,” centered around  the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, with music by Eli Villanueva. Take a deep breath now, while I sort out  some history, in case you just got here.
   “Brundibar” was composed  and performed in the Jewish quarter of Prague sometime between 1938 and 1941. A copy of the score was smuggled into the concentration camp at Teresienstadt (Terezin), where it was performed frequently by camp children under Krasa’s direction. The Nazis maintained the Terezin camp as something of a showpiece, with a busy performing-arts program and lots of clean toilets to impress the visiting press. There was a famous “Brundibar” performance at the camp before a group of Red Cross inspectors, in June, 1944, which apparently earned the camp a clean bill of health, except that the majority of the “specimen” inmates put up for inspection were among the next trainloads shipped out to the Auschwitz gas ovens immediately after the inspectors departed. 
   The role of The Cat at Terezin was taken by a child who survived, and who is now Mrs. Ela Weissberger, who has derived a lovely second existence out of her wretched childhood. At Terezin the young Ela attended classes by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Mrs. Weissberger has now made a new life attending performances of “Brundibar” and delivering a delightful post-performance memoir. That’s what she did at Disney Hall’s REDCAT this weekend, as “Brundibar” returned – no Sendak sets, but with stage direction by Eli Villanueva on a make-do set as in 2003, and with James Conlon himself conducting three of the four performances. (Daniel Faltus, who led the fourth, was the conductor in ’03.) For Conlon this revival is, of course, congruent with his ongoing “Recovered Voices” project, to restore the suppressed repertory, worthy or otherwise, of music denied its place under the Nazi shadow. For “Brundibar” the word is, I’m afraid,  “otherwise,” but I would not send back a minute of my Saturday morning spent with these spirited, greatly talented, splendidly directed kids who, I was told, worked up this solid hour of sheer stage exhilaration in something like eleven days’  rehearsals. If this is what “Opera Camp” was been turning out over these past five years I wish they’d keep me better informed. Certainly the repertory of really good operas for and with children – by Britten, for starters – can make this an adjunct of enormous value.

FLASH IN THE PAN: Let me recall a Friday afternoon at Boston’s Symphony Hall, 1942 or thereabouts: an unknown soloist, an unknown concerto: William Kapell playing the  Khatchaturian. Friday-afternoon Boston Symphony audiences were the epitome of restraint: some pitter-pattering applause at the end of a piece; never between movements. Something weird took place that afternoon, however: applause  (horror!) between movements and, would you believe, cheers. Sure enough, that piece had all the right grease, all right. It was – and is – made up entirely of  spare parts: Borodin-plus-hootchy-kootch, good writing for fast moving fingers. The only recording I owned, I think I bought because the names were so right: Moura Lympany, Anatole Fistoulari — say them aloud, over and over. Sixty years later,  Khatchaturian’s greasy concerto has practically disappeared from the catalogs; a single Russian recording remains.. 
    I have the feeling that Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with his built-in magic charm machine, has the chops to stage a comeback for this alluring, brainless showpiece.; it’s quite the match. (Ah, don’t ask why!) He’s been playing it around this summer, and he brought it to the Bowl last week. Why not? It’s exactly tailored to the Thibaudet persona: the mauve jacket with the silky-satin overlay, the gold-and-silver slippers; more solid gold in the hairwash. Thibaudet is our resident playboy; the new “Gramophone” chooses his Ravel over all others, which I find hard to believe until I discover that the obvious alternatives as superb Ravel performers on disc – Uchida, Aimard – do not exist.
   I guess you could call Thibaudet on Khatchaturian a great performance of its kind. Those fingers at work — on the video screens, it was like  watching some of those old Soviet films the Philharmonic ran a year or so ago of marvelous machinery getting ready for World War II. On the podium was the Philharmoic’s immensely talented assistant conductor Lionel Bringuier, whose role – in this work at least – could be compared to that of a weathervane in a typhoon.

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