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Opera review: Long Beach Opera stages 'Good Soldier Schweik'

January 24, 2010 |  2:06 pm

Schweikphoto 
Robert Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik” is a sassy opera. Long Beach Opera is a sassy company. So there was never need to wonder whether this plucky American cult opera from the 1950s should suit the American opera company known for its profuse pluck. Of course it did Saturday night in an entertaining production at Center Theater of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center that will be repeated in Santa Monica on Saturday. 

“Schweik” has a curious history. Kurka, a promising young composer, died in New York of leukemia in 1957, shortly before his 36th birthday with his first opera nearly complete. The orchestration was finished by Hershey Kay and the opera received a high profile premiere by New York City Opera in a production that featured extensive choreography by Robert Joffrey.   

Kurka, who grew up in a Czech household outside of Chicago, turned to Jaroslav Hasek’s famous World War I comic Czech novel “The Good Soldier Svejk,” which is about a trickster who befuddles the army and who became the inspiration for Yossaran in Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22.” For his libretto, Kurka quirkily chose a songwriter, Lewis Allan, who provided hits for Billy Holiday (“Strange Fruit”), Frank Sinatra (“The House I Live In”) and Peggy Lee (“Apples, Peaches and Cherries”).

Allan’s real name was Abel Meeropol. The Long Beach Opera program book describes him as “an ardent, but closet, Communist.” He and his wife adopted the two children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed in 1953 on charges of spying for the Soviet Union.

Written in impish rhyme, Allan’s anti-authoritarian satire should not have been difficult to decipher at a time when the Red Scare was still vivid. East Germans, anyway, easily enough recognized a fellow traveler. Just months after its New York premiere, “Schweik” was picked by the Komische Opera, the Brechtian East German opera company, and given a production by the famed director Walter Felsenstein.

“Schweik” went on to have dozens of European productions, prized for their political content. In America, where the opera has belonged mainly to amateurs and students, it is typically treated as broad farce. It received only two professional U.S. productions in the last decade -- by Chicago Opera Theater and Glimmerglass in upstate New York, both small companies.

The superficial American approach is not necessarily the wrong one, especially given Kurka’s derivative, lightweight score. Had this talented composer lived longer, he may have turned into an American Kurt Weill, but his music here is pastiche, with its lively marches and dances and its sidelong glances at popular song, Stravinsky, Bernstein and everything else of its day that had punch.

The orchestra is for a chamber group of 17 winds and percussion. Andrea Mitisek -- Long Beach Opera’s Austrian artistic and general director, and its conductor – added a tuba for a little more oomph. That was a good idea.

Long Beach Opera continued the American farce tradition with its production of “Schweik,” and that was a good idea, too. The Center Theater is an intimate space, and the orchestra was at the back of the stage, behind a scrim on which were projected images. The opera is a series of vignettes and Justin Jorgensen’s “sets” were little more than easily movable platforms.

That meant there was plenty of room for director Ken Roht’s nonstop hellzapoppin goings on, although he had the singers running up and down the aisles as well. The opera has 20 characters, but Long Beach Opera found seven singers who could change costumes and persona quickly and amusingly and take on 19 roles. Schweik, however, occupied the eighth singer, tenor Matthew DiBattista throughout. The protagonist is on stage in every scene, wreaking havoc with psychiatrists, his supervisors and their mistresses and whoever else he encounters.

In the novel, the question is left open whether Schweik is a cocky prankster or a simple-minded fool who finds the most subversively ludicrous ways of enjoying the horrors and absurdities of war. DiBattista was a cleverly good-natured and strongly sung Schweik, more of a survivor than a rascal. 

He was also an athletic Schweik, but in that he could hardly stand out, since everyone needed to be athletic in an aerobic, carefully choreographed production. Kudos, in fact, can be passed around to all the singers, many Long Beach regulars -- Alex Richardson, Jeremy Huw Williams, Benito Galindo, John Atkins, Jesse Merlin, Suzan Hanson, Peabody Southwell and Mark Bringelson. A four-man ensemble added more movement, beefcake and a dollop of goofy dog impersonations. All were merrily costumed by Marcy Hiratzka.

Roht took a few liberties. His hospital scene, for instance, emphasized scatological silliness by including extravagant enemas, introducing a sadistic transvestite nurse making the “large-breasted German dowager Baroness” no dowager at all. But it was all good fun.

But then the Schweikian spirit is no stranger to Long Beach Opera. The company has long lived on the economic edge, surviving by its wits. And maybe that's why, in these hard times, it now appears perhaps the artistically healthiest opera outfit in the country.

-- Mark Swed

"The Good Soldier Schweik,"  Long Beach Opera, Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. 4 p.m. Jan. 30. $45 - $95. (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Photo: Matthew Di Battista in the title role of Long Beach Opera's "The Good Soldier Schweik."

Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times 

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