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KRÁSA: Brundibár

CD Button Singers and instrumentalists of St.-Ursula-Gymnasium (Freiburg), Grüters. Texts. Christophorus 77318

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IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to separate an evaluation of Brundibár’s aesthetic worth from knowledge of its unbearably poignant origins. Hans Krása’s children’s opera had its premiere in Prague’s Jewish orphanage in 1942, but by the time it was performed, Krása had been shipped off to the concentration camp at Terezín; much of the original cast followed. The piano score was smuggled into the camp, and Krása reorchestrated it for the forces at hand. The Nazis condoned a production in an attempt to portray Theresienstadt as a “model camp,” and it received fifty-five performances there between 1943 and 1944. Scenes from it appeared in the bizarre 1944 propaganda short“Theresienstadt,” arguing for the regime’s kindness toward its interned Jews. But soon after filming, Krása and most of the young cast were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

Almost four decades later, Maria Veronika Grüters, a Benedictine nun and music teacher, translated the original Czech and Hebrew libretto into German and devised her own orchestration of the piece; she led its German premiere in 1985 at Freiburg’s St. Ursula Secondary School and later brought her production to Israel. In the years since, the work has been performed all over the world; an early-2000s production, with sets by Maurice Sendak and the libretto translated by Tony Kushner, was seen in Chicago, Berkeley and New York. 

It’s easy to understand why the work appealed to its initial audience of children under dire threat. The fable-like action centers on an impoverished but plucky brother and sister, Ann and Sepp, who go to town hoping to buy milk for their ailing mother. They try to earn money by singing and dancing, but the crowd is interested only in the mean-spirited organgrinder Brundibár. With the help of a band of other children, along with a cat, a dog and a bird, they vanquish the villain and grab his bucket of cash.

Krása’s treatment, merging the realms of café music and nursery rhyme, achieves a remarkable simplicity: this is music that a young cast can sing easily and a young audience can apprehend instantly. But in the victory march that closes the work, ambiguities crop up. Adolf Hoffmeister’s
text celebrates the power of collaborative resistance to rout wrongdoers, but the music, weaving in and out of the minor mode, suggests all too appropriately that evil is not so easily conquered.

The present recording is derived from a 1986 radio broadcast of the St. Ursula production, under Grüters’s musical direction. The work of the juvenile singers and instrumentalists is more than a little rough, but considering the material, the lack of professional sheen has expressive poignancy. Nicole Brück and Angelina Ribeiro are appropriately artless as the sibling protagonists, while Vera Fliegauf brings swagger, and a comparatively mature sound, to the obnoxious title character—an older girl having fun trying out her “adult voice.” 

The CD booklet doesn’t offer an English translation; I followed along using a download of Kushner’s, which doesn’t consistently correspond to the edition used here. The recording prefaces the forty-minute opera with Karel Schwenk’s Weill-like “Theresienstadt-Hymne,” sung with guttural power by Ruth Elias, a concentration-camp survivor. —Fred Cohn 

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