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CLASSICAL  October 2009

CLASSICAL October 2009

Subject:

Of Arms and the Cow

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 13 Oct 2009 19:18:17 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (95 lines)

Kurt Weill

*  Der Kuhhandel

Ursula Pfitzner (Juanita Sanchez); Dietmar Kerschbaum (Juan Santos);
Michael Kraus (Mr. Jones); Carlo Hartmann (President Mendez); Wolfgang
Gratschmaier (Ximenez); Rolf Haunstein (General Gardia Conchas), et al.
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper/Christoph Eberle.
Phoenix Edition 803 DVD  TT: 138:00

Summary for the Busy Executive: Weill a l'anglaise et francaise.

In the early Thirties, Kurt Weill, on the run from the Nazis, found
himself in Paris.  A fellow refugee, Robert Vambery, proposed a theater
project -- a political fable about arms dealing and the political
corruption that it engenders.  The result was the opera Der Kuhhandel,
a title with multiple definitions.  Literally, "cattle trading," it also
meant the shady deals of politicians in the Berliner slang of the Thirties
-- sort of equivalent to the American "horse trading." Weill, one of the
great innovators of theater music, decided to invoke the spirit of
Offenbach, since he was in Paris anyway.  However, the project failed
to interest theaters in either Paris or Zurich, and Weill and Vambery
more or less put it aside.  In 1935, they tried for a London West End
production, now called A Kingdom for a Cow, with the libretto revamped
into English by British pop writers Reginald Arkell and Desmond Carter,
with both Weill's and Vambery's blessing.  I've actually come across
some of the lyrics, and predictably they soften considerably the biting
German original.

Despite a sparkling score, the production flopped, and Weill,
considerably annoyed, shelved the project for good, recycling a couple
of themes for later work.  A beguine, for example, became the basis for
Knickerbocker Holiday's "September Song." In 1978, Weill's assistant,
Lys Symonette, created a performing version.  This seems to have been
the basis of the version on this DVD. There are, of course, little
topical updates here and there -- sometimes annoying, sometimes merely
superfluous -- but one expects that, especially today when directors
and actors see themselves less as servants of the material and more
as artistic forces in their own right.  Often, they're wrong.

I've seldom understand the purpose of a classical DVD, mainly because
I hear, rather than look at music.  You'd think opera DVD would be a
natural, but usually it provides an opportunity to see bad acting up
close, as is the case here.  The voices are, at best, so-so.  Indeed,
because I don't really look at the credits before I listen, I thought
this group resided in some German operatic backwater -- Dusseldorf, for
example.  Imagine my surprise when I learned it was Vienna.  Even the
Lake Erie Opera in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, did better than this.

The direction has its bad and good points.  The visual satire is much
too heavy-handed for the material.  Soldiers carry AK-47s (or clones
thereof).  Tactical missiles dot the stage.  There's the inevitable lame
Nazi reference -- in this case, half a swastika (you'd think even directors
would recognize this as a cliche).  For some reason, the national dress
of the peasants in an obviously South American country is Lederhosen and
Dirndls.  On the other hand, it's wonderfully seedy.  The fictional
setting is a poor, tropical country, so the look of the production is
appropriate.  There's a by-now obligatory note of decadence in productions
of Weill's European work.  Some ladies of the chorus dress butch, while
some men dress as female whores.  Also, the director has recognized that
traditional opera acting styles won't do and aims at something more
knockabout.  Unfortunately, the performers have no training in this
manner and little familiarity with, say, Broadway style, but this isn't
really the director's fault.  The show could have used a Howard da Silva,
a Kaye Ballard, a Phil Silvers, and a Sam Levine.

Nevertheless, the disc has its uses.  This is the only recording of
anything near the score that Weill wrote.  People think they know Weill's
music, but when they think of him, they usually think of two works: Der
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Dreigroschenoper.  Weill's
range is a lot bigger than that.  The standard rap against Weill is that
he sold out his European soul for Broadway gold.  Although I fail to see
why the composer of Lady in the Dark, "September Song," Street Scene,
and Lost in the Stars has to apologize, I must say that Weill constantly
expanded his idiom, even before the American exile.  Indeed, Die
Dreigroschenoper itself represents an expansion of Weill's earlier idiom,
grafting Twenties cabaret music onto a Busonian, Schoenbergian base.
Here, the music has been leavened by Offenbach and, because of the South
American setting, by Latin rhythms.  It's a wonderful score.  The CD (on
Capriccio) isn't complete and leaves out my favorite number, the "Pharaoh
Song," Offenbach's "Kleinsach" turned to bitterness.  This DVD uses much
more, if not all, of the score.

The English subtitles are embarrassingly careless, littered by typos,
bad grammar, translatorese, and euphemism.  Nevertheless, because this
is the most complete recording of the score.  I recommend it to Weill
fanatics, like me.

Steve Schwartz

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