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Sly bumpkin: Griffey and company in The Good Soldier Schweik.

Shrewd Innocence
By B.A. Nilsson

The Good Soldier Schweik
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 25

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 urbanites.

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.

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