Der Jasager and Der Kuhhandel
Weill Rarities Receive N.Y. Premieres
794 words by Leonard Lehrman
Commemorating the semi-centennial of Kurt Weill's death April 3, a month and a day after the centennial of his birth, Weill Foundation President Kim Kowalke, speaking at the opening of New York University's two-week Weill Celebration, exulted that this year so many of the composer's little-known and/or unfinished works are finally being heard, so posterity will at last be able to make "an informed judgment" of their worth.
Two of those works, in as many weeks, appeared in New York in faithful and enthusiastic productions, hampered only by awkward English translations.
First, The Japan Society presented 5 performances of "Der Jasager" ("He Who Says Yes" or "The Consenter"), preceded by the complete Japanese Noh play, "Taniko" ("The Valley Rite"), on which it was based. The coupling of these two demanding, stylistically disparate works was being accomplished for the first time in America.
Then the Juilliard Opera Center presented 3 performances of "Der Kuhhandel," known in English under the mock-Shakespearean title "A Kingdom for a Cow" or the mock-Shavian "Arms and the Cow."
Both are fascinating pieces, fully deserving of the enormous energy and talent invested in their productions.
At The Japan Society
"Taniko" is three times the length of the 35-minute "Jasager," and more than a little overextended for most Western tastes. But it was worth sitting through, even if just to be able to understand better the original context of the basis for the terse 1930 Brecht-Weill lesson play.
The subject, like "The Measures Taken" (which Brecht confuted with this play during his 1947 HUAC testimony), written the same year --but with Hanns Eisler as composer--is solidarity, and the willingness to sacrifice one's life for the common good.
In the Noh play, the life of a young boy, taken sick on an expedition on behalf of his ill mother, is spared by the god of dance. In the Brecht, the boy dies. The German playwright later rethought this, and wrote an alternative play, "Der Neinsager," in which the boy refused to acquiesce in his death. Weill refused to set the new version, however, and only much later did the East German composer Reiner Bredemeyer (b. 1929) write music for it--which has yet to be heard in this country.
In the Japan Society production, "Taniko" was sung/chanted in Japanese, and featured the 5-year-old company known as Nohgaku-za, with a cast of 11 plus chorus and 5 instrumentalists, starring Kanze Hideo, Shibata Takanori as the boy, and Umewaka Rokuro as his mother.
"Jasager," starring David Malis, Zachary Eden Bernhard as the boy, and Mimi Lerner as his mother, featured a cast of 15 and an orchestra of 14, conducted by Julius Rudel, who received a special award from the Kurt Weill Foundation on opening night.
The libretto, credited to Bertolt Brecht, but based almost entirely on Elizabeth Hauptmann's German translation of Arthur Waley's English translation of "Taniko," was sung in an English translation by J.M. Potts that did not quite fit all the music, though director Jonathan Eaton succeeded admirably in choreographing subsidiary accents so as to mask much of the agogic clumsiness. In an interview with Aufbau, he admitted that he could have done even more, and perhaps will, in subsequent performances in various schools in and around Pittsburgh.
The 24-member cast plus chorus, 8 mimes, and 48-piece orchestra at Juilliard also struggled with an unwieldy, often clever, but too often over-wordy and poorly accented translation of "Kuhhandel," newly commissioned from British writer Jeremy Sams.
Raquela Sheeran was vocally outstanding as the heroine Juanita Sanchez, nicely complemented by the pure delivery of tenor Michael Slattery as the hero Juan Santos, whose first aria sent up a collective sigh in the audience as listeners gleefully recognized the first 8 bars Weill would later use in "September Song."
The score also contains virtually an entire scene later used in "Lady in the Dark," and a host of other references back to Weill's European works and forward to his American ones. "Weill didn't believe in wasting a good tune," as Kowalke put it, so the work-- which opened and closed after 3 weeks at the Savoy in London in June 1935--is full of pre- and re-cycled gems.
Dramatically, Robert Vambery's anti-war operetta libretto and Weill's music are a pastiche of styles, which were broadly and amusingly drawn by Juilliard director Frank Corsaro, though one could have desired a bit more exuberance from the pit, especially the percussion section. At three and a half hours, the work could perhaps have been beneficially shortened by 30 minutes or so, but those who complained (as did The New York Times) of its being uncut should have been better informed: 40 minutes had already been excised!
All of it deserves to be heard--and recorded--though please, if possible, in a better translation.
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