Verdi wrote "Aida" for the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, but it was
not performed in Cairo until 1871. Do you need these facts when you
listen to the opera? Not really. In fact, it makes not a whit of
difference in the appreciation of the work. The opera is the thing,
the historical context is ephemeral, inconsequential.
How different this relationship is in the case of the Berkeley Rep's
production of Hans Krasa's "Brundibar"! The history of the opera is
overwhelming, all-important. It was performed by and for children in
the Teresienstadt ghetto, eventually a terminal gateway to Auschwitz,
where composer, young performers and audiences soon perished during the
Holocaust. And yet, the work and the production must be seen - and
reviewed - on their own merit, apart from those horrendous antecedents.
Krasa was born in Prague, but he in the city's German community, and
his education and career took place mostly in Berlin, where he became
a student and protege of Alexander Zemlinsky. Recognized early as a
conductor, Krasa was offered positions in Berlin, Paris, and Chicago.
An eminently talented composer, he created a fine body of neo-romantic
works, in spite of his tragically early death in the concentration camp,
at age 45.
It is ironic that today he is best known for "Burundibar" because the
work's "minimalistic" simplicity doesn't represent Krasa at his best,
which is found in some of his orchestral works, the 1936 Theme and
Variations for String Quartet, and the 1943 Passacaglia and Fugue
for String Trio, written while captive in Teresienstadt. Musically,
"Burundibar" is a charming, simple, melodic, folksong-like suite of brief
scenes. Would it have survived without its history? Probably not.
Valery Gebert conducts the 13-piece pit orchestra as two extraordinarily
mature and professional youngsters, sixth-grader Aaron Simon Gross and
third-grader Devynn Pedell sing the lead roles of Pepicek and Aninku,
who are trying to get some mild and bread for their sick mother. When
they see Brundibar (Euan Morton, on stills), a successful but mean stilt-
walking street artist, they ask him for the money, but he not only refuses
- he tries to prevent the duo from performing on the street to get the
money. The village, led by its children, stands up to Brundibar, and
they sing a triumphant chorus of joy. It is at this moment, especially
in the superbly cohesive performance by the children that Krasa's "little
opera" hits a true musical high note.
Production design is by Maurice Sendak, executed by Kris Stone, Tony
Taccone is the stage director. The English adaptation is by Tony Kushner.
To get an idea of what it might have been like to work with the often
Brundibar-like Sendak, see Mirra Bank's memorable documentary, "The Last
Dance". It is about Sendak's tempestuous collaboration with Pilobolus
to produce "A Selection", a dance piece built on "Brundibar".
The same production team is responsible for the other work on the Berkeley
Rep's double-bill, Bohuslav Martinu's "Comedy on the Bridge". Its story
is even simpler than Krasa's, if that's possible: a group of people
getting stuck on a bridge between two warring countries. The music is
similarly atypical: it has little to do with the symphonic magnificence
of Martinu's large-scale works; it's more like a mini-operetta, in scale
"Bridge" features mostly singers (the Rep's Geoff Hoyle has non-singing
roles in both works), including Anjali Bhimani (the Sparrow in "Brundibar"),
Martin Vidnovic, Matt Farnsworth. Angelina Reaux (also the outstanding
Cat in the other work), and others. Morton gets off his stilts and star
billing to play one of the two border guards.
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