17 November 2011

Davies’ ‘Kommilitonen!’ at Juilliard

Revolutionary Children:
Heather Engebretson (seated) and Wallis Giunta (crouching)
learn a tough lesson.
(At far right, that’s Wei-Yang Andy Lin on the erhu.)
Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Juilliard.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote an opera for schoolchildren, the Lehrstück (Learning-piece) Der Jasager (He Who Says Yes, from 1930), but it doesn’t much resemble Kommilitonen!, the new work for somewhat older students by composer Peter Maxwell Davies and librettist/stage director David Pountney, given its American premiere at the Juilliard School on 16 November. (The title comes from a German word I’ve never before encountered, meaning “students” but suggesting the English word “tone” and the roots for “militancy” and “togetherness.”) Whereas Brecht and Weill steered away from specific political references and set their opera in a generic Storyland (vaguely Japanese, because based on Japanese source material), Davies and Pountney aim directly at three 20th-century tales of student activism in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, Nazi Germany, and Mao’s China.*

Davies and Pountney are pretty up-front about the debt to both Brecht and Weill, from the Verfremdungseffekt of Red Army officers portrayed as puppets who sing like the Andrews Sisters, to the ultra-Weillian scoring for brass and the recurring jazz rhythms. Really, it’s like Kurt Weill on acid. That there are other ways to write music for such stage works was proved conclusively during the German sections, where Weillian homage would ordinarily have seemed most appropriate yet is seldom heard.

The results, heard at the Juilliard premiere, are satisfactory more on musical (and, presumably, educational) grounds than as an exhortation to political action: when you’ve spent the entire evening steadfastly refusing to appeal to the emotions, you can’t expect to get a crowd fired up. This is a fundamental problem in many of Brecht’s plays, too (and, considering whom he was working for, thank goodness).

Try to keep your eye on the puppet. No, seriously, try.
(On the bright side, that’s JeongCheol Cha on your left,
providing the voice of the Father.)
Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Juilliard.

Pountney’s eminently singable libretto tells its three stories in interweaving episodes, rather than separating them (which, as Pountney points out, is Puccini’s approach in Trittico, and which he finds less “interesting” than his own) is scrupulously evenhanded in its targets: we get one oppressive society in America (as James Meredith attends Ole Miss), one right-wing (as Hans and Sophie Scholl’s Die Weiße Rose group opposes Hitler), and one left-wing (as regrettably generic characters watch their parents swept up in the Cultural Revolution).

The point, when we get to it (a luscious final chorale) is something about joining forces in order for freedom to prevail, yet Meredith is seen entirely alone for most of the opera, the Scholls don’t survive to see their viewpoint affirmed, and the Chinese children join the very forces that murdered their parents — they prevail by going with the flow, and they never do find freedom. Ultimately, I’m not sure the creative team picked the best examples for the ideas they wanted to depict, and while we in the audience may not get as much to think about as Pountney and Davies surely intended, we do get plenty of business to hold our attention.

Davies’ score pleasingly synthesizes a number of different styles and forms, but most especially the styles of jazz and the form of oratorio. Indeed, the Meredith sections are so much an oratorio, they feel dropped in from another work entirely, one that’s completely lacking dramatic action, reliant on Meredith (here, Will Liverman) to narrate the pertinent events. Paradoxically, just as you’re realizing the Meredith sections are never going to turn into drama, Davies and Pountney perpetrate a switcheroo, when the interrogation of the Scholl siblings is presented in the form of a Bach Passion, with an Evangelist (Noah Baetge) and an Inquisitor (Aubrey Allicock).**

Pountney’s staging erred significantly in one regard: an excess of scene changes. Given the utter simplicity of the scenic elements, and the ease and effectiveness of lighting and rear projections of photographic images (to say nothing of the cues in Davies’ score) to suggest a change of time and place, one has to wonder why anybody with Pountney’s vast experience fouled this up so badly: was it a Brecht-style attempt to take us out of the dramatic moment? Certainly Pountney has studied his Brechtian tricks thoroughly, as we could see in the use of projected titles (announcing, for example, “The March of the Revolutionary Children”), the makeup (unexplained Xs on the cast’s cheeks), and so on.

Verfremdung macht Spaß!
Meredith Lustig, Laura Mixter, and Rachael Wilson
as the Red Army’s answer to the Andrews Sisters.
Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Juilliard.

Pountney elicited strong performances from his youthful cast, notably including a kind of authority that few kids can command onstage or anywhere else. This was most evident in Liverman’s performance: it was hard to see how anyone would dare oppose this James Meredith, and when he told us that he slept soundly despite the violent protests outside his dorm room, we believed. But Allicock, Lacey Jo Benter (as the Chinese mother), and JeongCheol Cha (as the Chinese father) had authority in abundance, too.

As ever, I’m reluctant to get too specific about student performers, but I approved enthusiastically of everyone onstage, and the aforementioned, along with Wallis Giunta (in the trouser role of the Chinese son), Heather Engebretson (the Chinese daughter), and Deanna Breiwick (Sophie Scholl), impressed me especially. The last-named are all exceptionally attractive young ladies, too — but then, this is Juilliard, where “even the orchestra is beautiful,” as Joel Grey might say. (At least two of the young men in the stage ensemble looked like — and may be — Abercrombie models.)

Anne Manson led an assured, spirited reading of the score, by turns dissonant and lyrical though it is (and sometimes both at once). Even when she was called on to command an onstage band and chorus, plus soloists planted in the audience, not to mention those musicians still loitering in the pit, nothing seemed to faze her. I couldn’t ask for a fairer first hearing.

Carolyn Choa’s choreography kept the stage lively even at its most oratorio-esque. Far from intrusive, the dancing actually helped to cover some of those darned scene changes. Representing the Chinese parents, puppets from Blind Summit Theatre, on the contrary, were operated by all-too distracting puppeteers; the Chinese-officer puppets were more successful (very much along the lines of Blind Summit’s puppet King in Gotham Chamber Opera’s El Gato con Botas last season).

I admired Robert Innes Hopkins’ costume designs, which enabled ensemble members to transform from Mississippi redneck to Maoist Red Guard with ease; my only quibble was that the German women shouldn’t have worn trousers under their overcoats, a fashion lapse for which they could have been arrested by the Nazis. (Would it have been so difficult to roll up the pants legs?) Hopkins’ stark, evocative scenic elements were terrific, too, but for the fact that there were so many of them — which isn’t entirely his fault.

I daresay Kommilitonen! was a learning experience for just about everybody involved, including this writer. Whether the piece endures is another question — and yet, so long as young people keep marching in protest, I expect that this opera will never be strictly a museum piece, but a living testament.

Kommiltonen! will be presented at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater on Friday, 18 November, at 8 PM, and on Sunday, 20 November at 2 PM.
For further information, call 1 (212) 769-7406
Or visit Juilliard’s website.

*NOTE: The political dimensions of the new opera must have taken on extra relevance during the rehearsal period, as the Occupy Wall Street movement grew in influence (and manifested across the street from Juilliard on opening night), and as the so-called forces of order began to crack down in various, predictably ill-advised ways. (Who knew that “Bloomberg” was the Yiddish word for “Mubarak Lite”?)

** I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that the Scholls — however admirable, prophetic, and martyred — were somehow Christ figures, but the authors dodge that logical conclusion by denying the student activists the response that Bach surely would have given to Jesus. Alas, this meant less for Alexander Hajek (as Hans Scholl) to do — but on the other hand, he can’t sing Gianni Schicchi every day, can he?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your continued support. I do in fact do a little modeling on the side. And "yes" I could sing Gianni Schicchi everyday

William V. Madison said...

Well, Mr. Hajek (if it is indeed you), I could certainly listen to you sing Gianni Schicchi every day! Now all we have to do is find the theater to produce the show.