Saturday, 19 July 2014

Jonny spielt auf – German National Theatre, Weimar – 5 July 2014

Krister St Hill (Jonny) and Steffi Lehmann (Yvonne)

Photo: Stephan Walzl

Max, a composer – Alexander Günther
Anita, a singer – Larissa Krokhina
Jonny, a jazzband violinist – Krister St Hill
Daniello, a violin virtuoso – Bjørn Waag
Yvonne, a chambermaid – Steffi Lehmann
Manager – Daeyoung Kim
Hotel director – Artjom Korotkov
Station supervisor – Detlef Koball
First Policeman – Klaus Wegener
Second Policeman – Yong Jae Moon
Third Policeman – Oliver Luhn

DNT Opera Chorus
Weimar Staatskapelle

Conductor – Martin Hoff
Director – Frank Hilbrich
Set design – Volker Thiele
Costumes – Gabriele Rupprecht
Dramaturge – Kathrin Kondaurow

Larissa Krokhina (Anita) and Alexander Gunther (Max)

Photo: Stephan Walzl

It’s difficult to imagine the same happening today: when Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up) premiered in Leipzig in 1927 it was such an instant hit with audiences (less so with the critics) that some 30 other theatres had taken it up and staged it within its first year. Krenek’s publisher, Universal Edition, produced a map showing where it had been put on in that one year and it covers virtually every major and minor opera house in Germany bar Munich, as well as places further afield from Antwerp to Budapest, Basel to Leningrad. Its fall from grace was almost as swift – its subject-matter made it the target of Nazi demonstrations from its early days and later Jonny literally became the poster-boy for the ‘Degenerate Music’ (Entartete Musik) exhibition held in Düsseldorf in 1938.

The reasons for both its fame and its rejection seem tame to us today. In short, it is in effect a cross between opera and operetta in which the tussle between European art music and American jazz being played out by composers across the continent in the 1920s is made manifest. Jonny, a black leader of a jazzband, steals an Amati violin from the classical virtuoso Daniello because he feels the old music is dead and his is the future and more worthy of the instrument, in doing so encouraging everyone to head for the New World as the music of America is set conquer the Old. The catchy jazz numbers and subversiveness and raciness of the action were lapped up by early audiences and were among the very reasons that the work fell foul of Nazi doctrine – Jonny spielt auf was almost designed to provoke its worst prejudices (although Krenek wasn’t Jewish, it didn’t stop Viennese protesters complaining of a ‘Jewish–Negro soiling of our opera house’).

As a key representative of 1920s Zeitoper (opera of our time, or more specifically opera with a contemporary milieu), it is also a signature cultural artefact of the Weimar Republic. The chance of seeing it in the very theatre (admittedly rebuilt post-war) where that republic was declared in 1919 was too good an opportunity to miss. Weimar is named on that Universal map, so this was presumably its first return to the theatre since the late 1920s.

Jonny sets its challenges for the director and designer, calling for a singing glacier, a Keystone Cops-style car chase and a character falling to his death under a moving train. Frank Hilbrich and Volker Thiele avoided all three: the glacier was presented as a giant picture in a gallery, and the hard-to-portray action sequences took place off stage. The idea of the gallery, overseen by a trio of decrepit curators (who also undertook the roles of arthritic scene-shifters), actually proved an apt analogy for the ‘museum culture’ that Jonny wants to sweep away, but the added scene at the very beginning, before the music had even started, in which the entire cast paraded past the glacier image was interminable overkill.

The glacier is a paradoxical symbol – the one place where composer Max feels secure while the world around him seems to be slipping from his grasp. Here by chance he meets Anita, who has sung in one of his operas, wins his heart and persuades him to follow her and her career to America. For all the slapstick and all that jazz, it is their relationship that leads the plot, even if ultimately it is Jonny whose guile wins the day. Also in the mix are the chambermaid Yvonne and the lascivious and conniving violinist Daniello who gets his comeuppance under the train. Hilbrich staged all this with cinematic fluidity, helped by Thiele’s mobile set that easily transformed from gallery to hotel to station. His characterisation was sharp, helped by a cast that played together as a true ensemble, from doddery silent museum staff to leading roles.

Most of these were cast from Weimar’s in-house team of singers. Alexander Günther, who has been with the company for 22 years and has recently moved from baritone to tenor roles (most singers tend to move the other way), found the lyricism in the role of the ever-troubled Max. He was strongly partnered by Russian soprano Larissa Krokhina as Anita, who coped well with the part’s demanding coloratura and had admirable presence on stage. Steffi Lehmann was winningly lithe of voice as Yvonne – the perfect soubrette – and Norwegian baritone Bjørn Waag managed to garner some sympathy as a warm-voiced Daniello.

But inevitably the show was stolen by Jonny in the person of guest baritone, the Swedish–Trinidadian Krister St Hill, veteran of the Decca recording of the work from over twenty years ago, but still in full command of the role in voice and character. It’s a part that demands wit, cunning, charm and charisma, and he possessed them all, coupled with a sleek tonal quality and winning way with the German/cod-American text.

Krenek’s score is an unusual cross between 1920s New Objectivity, even atonality, and the popular song and dance idioms that so entranced those early audiences. It’s a difficult mixture to hold together, but Weimar’s General Music Director Martin Hoff gave the score admirable shape and integrity and if the Weimar Staatskapelle wasn’t quite up to the level of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on the Decca recording it was nonetheless idiomatic and enthusiastic in its execution of the music.

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