bumpkin: Griffey and company in The Good Soldier
Good Soldier Schweik
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug.
From the protective guardians of Daughter of the Regiment
to the abusive captain of Wozzeck, military figures
tend to play well in operas. Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier
Schweik may be the most elusive of such figures. Like
Stan Laurel, he is a well-meaning naif whose mere presence
inspires bombast and disaster, and yet he has enough cunning
to preserve himself throughout such tribulation.
As the final production of the current Glimmerglass Opera
season, it featured a magnificent performance by tenor Anthony
Dean Griffey in the title role. Onstage throughout almost
all the opera, he easily conveyed Schweik’s wide-eyed innocence
while conveying the full power of the score with a powerful
voice. Looking like a young Chuck McCann, he wore green while
most of the rest wore gray, a faun amid a sea of faceless
John Conklin’s design stylized the elements of war and bureaucracy
almost too much, with soldier’s helmets made from buckets
and plungers and a set of moveable platforms. But the cartoon
aspects of the set suited Rhoda Levine’s staging, which kept
a sense of crowded busy-ness even with a modest-sized cast.
Kurka’s piece was based on a story by Czech novelist Jaroslav
Hasek; the American-born composer grew up in a Czech-populated
suburb of Chicago and, it is assumed, became familiar with
the story early in life. His setting, for which he wrote the
libretto with the uncredited Abel Meeropol (who is also known
as Lewis Allen, the writer of “Strange Fruit”), is often compared
to the work of Kurt Weill, but it’s really more in line with
Second Viennese School textures—Berg by way of Stravinsky,
perhaps, with some music-hall tunes thrown in.
We’re on the eve of World War I and already the secret police
are making life miserable for the citizenry. Schweik bumbles
his way through a series of misadventures kicked off by indiscreet
comments in a tavern just after Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated.
“Who will go to the war when it comes?” asks one refrain,
and the answer is, just about everyone. Schweik’s rheumatism
notwithstanding, he ends up in the army, an abstraction of
a fighting team that works under a banner borrowed from Chaplin’s
The Great Dictator.
Keith Jameson, a versatile tenor, took several roles, including
a psychiatrist and the chaplain who sings over a mixture of
“Ein’ Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” and “Dies Irae.” Baritone
Aaron St. Clair Nicholson humanized the part of Lt. Lukash,
who wins Schweik as valet in a card game. And mezzo-soprano
Mary Kristine Hughes, one of the Young American Artists this
season, had a wonderfully pompous turn as Baroness von Botzenheim.
The entire cast was first-rate, moving from solo work into
ensemble numbers with ease and quickly conquering what could
have been an unwieldy set. The music is too infectious to
resist, and must be a joy to sing. There’s an undercurrent
vaudeville flavor, as when a number about “the army, the army,”
turns reminiscent of “The Bowery.” The piece itself is written
with vaudeville’s bold strokes, but through it all a very
sympathetic Schweik emerges, a man who allows society to use
him as long as he’s reasonably comfortable, but knows how
to save his own skin in the end.
Scored without strings, it showcased an excellent ensemble
of musicians under the always-able direction of Stewart Robertson.