Composer Robert Kurka died way too young, in his thirties, of leukemia. During his brief career, he wrote at least two symphonies, a bunch of chamber pieces, and the opera, The Good Soldier Schweik. Kurka first composed an orchestral suite inspired by the Haek novel. The suite has become not only his most popular work, but one of the few post-World War II American works played more than once. The opera, with a witty libretto by Kurka and "Strange Fruit" lyricist Abel Meerepol, uses sections and themes from the suite. The suite and the opera retain the unusual mix of satiric edge and good humor found in Haek's original. Schweik has become one of the great comic figures - a survivor of hellish situations through a genial non-resistance. Schweik always appears accommodating and willing to please. He never complains, and this frustrates those who would give him grief. It's Brecht before Brecht. Indeed, Brecht appropriated the character for his own Schweyk in the Second World War.
I know of only one U.S. production other than the Chicago Opera Theater's, although the opera had achieved success in Europe. The great Walter Felsenstein staged it for the Komische Oper. It's the kind of opera American companies shy away from since the plot concerns neither sex nor domestic murder. After all, it took Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen roughly forty years to receive its (amateur) American première. Unlike Europe, the U.S. generally does not consider opera either drama or theater – rather, spectacle and vocal gymnastics, an excuse for admiring pretty scenery and costumes and betting whether someone will make a high C. Indeed, so limited is the American opera scene that a prominent critic at Schweik's première complained in print, "Where are the violins?" Kurka's orchestra consists of winds, brass, and percussion, more or less following the lines of Brecht and Weill's Dreigroschenoper. Since the Blitzstein version (The Threepenny Opera) was enjoying a record run in New York at the time, one wonders how such an operatic milestone could have slipped the critic's mind. Then consider the Met's repertory in the thirty years following the Dreigroschenoper's première.
Kurka's music again sounds a little like Weill's Threepenny and a little like Prokofiev's Kije. The suite is wonderful, a complete success. The classic recording with Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra is available on Albany TROY044. It's joined by Mennin's cello concerto (Janos Starker, soloist) and Piston's Symphony #1, both conducted by Jorge Mester. The opera has its problems, chief among which is that, unlike Weill and Prokofiev, Kurka has a devil of a time setting words. Kurka's biggest successes lie in the purely instrumental overture, dances, and interludes. The vocal line is usually some sort of stutter, as if the singer occasionally tripped over his own tongue. A little of this seems deliberate on the part of the composer, most does not. The libretto is good enough to deserve better. Nevertheless, as drama, the opera definitely works. It's a good evening of theater. One understands what attracted Felsenstein.
The singers are good, if not first-rate. The broad farce of the libretto suits the acting skills of most opera singers, and they take to it. Fortunately, Jason Collins (Schweik) acts better than run-of-the-mill. He not only makes you feel the warmth of the character but manages to put you in the position of Schweik's antagonists: you are never sure whether Schweik is a genuine idiot or very, very devious. The Chicago Opera band plays crisply and with a dash of bitters. Conductor Alexander Platt moves things along. The sound is fine.
Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz.