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Opera Review

'Brundibar' Delivers Historical Resonance

May 21, 1999|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, Hans Krasa's children's opera "Brundibar," which opened Wednesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, reaches us with a history.

We can detach Beethoven's music from its story--the composer first commemorating Napoleon, then angrily scratching out the name upon hearing that this "democratic" idol had declared himself an emperor. The symphony lives on its own.

But we cannot so detach "Brundibar." Its history, in fact, puts it beyond criticism.

Composed in 1938 for a competition sponsored by the Czechoslovak government but aborted by the Nazi takeover of the country, the opera--sung entirely by children--became a kind of centerpiece used to demonstrate the phony "beautiful life" the Nazis wished to portray in their concentration camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt in German).

The Czech composer, thousands of children (who made up the various casts) and thousands and thousands of adults either perished there (although there was no specific death machinery in the camp) or were transported to be murdered elsewhere.

So Adolf Hoffmeister's libretto (here in an English translation by Joza Krasas) takes on resonance far beyond its simple story.

It tells the tale of two children who need to raise money to buy milk for their sick mother. Helped by three animals, they succeed, only to have it stolen by the evil organ grinder Brundibar. Finally, however, they're able to defeat him and get it back. The villagers and children sing a final chorus of strength in unity.

Its back-story may put this work beyond criticism, but no apologies need to be offered. Krasa's music is sweet but not naive, and it fits children's voices.

And this Opera Pacific production isn't a family vanity offering. The children were remarkably talented and operating at an appropriate, professional level. Although there will be some casting changes in these roles in later performances, mention should be made of Lalaine as Annette, Nicholas Boragno as Little Joe, Jordan Alexander as Brundibar, Alexa Wildish as the Sparrow and Miyuki Hayashi, who sang in the prologue.

Jay Lesenger's direction was a model of simplicity and clarity, proving that less is more.

Henri Venanzi conducted the children and the chamber ensemble with authority and affection.

Peter Harrison designed the effective, even ingenious, set; Joel Berlin, the ragtag period costumes. Beverly Thies created the dramatic lighting effects.

Preceding the opera was a historical prologue written by Roberta Kay-Smith, who drew partly from poems and diaries of the period. She and Ron Smith alternated as strong narrators. Shula Klair-Merton brought a lustrous mezzo-soprano to the songs, which she sang in Yiddish and English.

Lending staggering authenticity to the conclusion of the prologue and the reprise of the finale of the opera was Ela Weissberger, one of about 100 children who survived out of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin. Weissberger had played the Cat in all 55 performances of the opera there.

Her remarks were devoid of any self-dramatization, and they were wrenching.

*

* "Brundibar" will repeat Sunday at 1:30 and 5 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Adults: $15-$25; children, $10-$18. (949) 854-4646.

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