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Having a Cow

New York
Juilliard Theater
04/11/2000 -  and 13,15 April 2000
Kurt Weill: Der Kuhhandel
Michael Slattery (Juan), Raquela Sheeran (Juanita),Randall Scarlata (Mendez),Jason Ferrante (Ximenes),Julian Patrick (Conchas)
Juilliard Opera
Randall Behr (conductor)

The musical theater career of Kurt Weill is divided into three periods. The first encompasses his years with Bertolt Brecht and has gained him worldwide posthumous fame (itís important to remember that The Threepenny Opera only became a megahit in the 1960ís). The third, his American years, produced great evenings such as Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus and Knickerbocker Holiday and helped to define the Broadway stage for two entire generations. It is his mi ddle period which is obscure and this is a crime, since many of his best efforts fall in these dark personal times.

Expatriate in Paris, Weill worked on two projects after fleeing the Nazis The Eternal Road is in many ways his greatest achievement, so painstakingly put together that Weill, the son of a cantor, went to the libraries of France in search of authentic ancient melodies for Jewish textual chanting. The other major occupant of his creative time was the light opera presented last evening by this most high energy New York opera company.

Kuhhandel is an untranslatable term, roughly denoting trading in livestock but more significantly connoting dirty dealings. Its rarity indicates that a brief plot summary is in order. Librettist Robert Vambery began to adapt an Elizabethan play about the individual versus the state and ended up, with considerable input from Weill, fashioning this little morality tale about human nature and global politics. Weillís Everyman is Juan, a peasant with only one thing (a cow) and a desire for only one thing more (Juanita). Juan lives in a tropical paradise where nothing ever happens but his world is shattered by the appearance of an American arms dealer who sells guns to the government so that they can fight their neighbor. This bellicose change of lifestyle leads the government to seek a strong leader and a general known as "the man of steel" emerges as their new savior. Juan loses his cow to a special tax, not once but twice, and gets drafted. Juanita ends up in a whorehouse but becomes the generalissimoís favorite because of her singing ability. Everything comes right in the end, however, because the guns donít work (a Benjamin Britten ending couldnít be more appropriate) and everyone goes back to their lives of peace and tranquility.

The genius of Weill, which kept me chuckling and dancing in my seat throughout, is the constant undercurrent of the music. There is no coordination between singer and orchestra pit, rather there are two distinct sets of music happening at once. The rhythms of Act I are Latin, but always syncopated one beat too far from the downbeat, leading to a bouncy statement of eternal passion in the daily activities of the protagonists. When the strong leader emerges, however, the rhythms become more strident and the language more Germanic (speeches about the Fatherland and nostalgia for the edelweiss of this Caribbean isle are unmistakable) and the sardonic din from the pit becomes positively evil when the big waltz number finally arrives. Here is Austro-Germanic culture totally at odds with the comic characters onstage and an audience member in the Europe of 1935 couldnít possibly miss the synaesthetic point that something was indeed rotten in the mythical land of San Domingo. Weill and Vambery also send up organized religion (the abduction basket scene) and create an hilarious tableau of ceremony, each aristocrat and ambassador more ridiculous than the next. These pompously decorated tin soldiers are n o match for a real army and this captures vividly the corresponding events of Munich and Berlin during the death throes of the Weimar Republic. Special praise must be reserved for Joshua Winograde, whose portrayal of the Foreign Minister left my companion and I breathless with laughter, both of us having recently experienced similar comic official figures in the Latin America of today.

Michael Slattery led a superb cast whose sense of comic timing was impeccable. He conveyed Juanís naivete flawlessly and tugged at the heart in the most inventive scene of all, a triptych of Juan on maneuvers, Juanita at the brothel and the champagne flowing at the decadent official party celebrating the oncoming war. Raquela Sheeran possesses a fine voice and sang her arias of loneliness eloquently. But for me the star of the evening was the orchestra, capturing just the right Weillian bite (often missed by their elders) and creating purposefully spare sound with such exotic instruments as banjo, bass guitar and har monium. The appearances of the onstage accordionist were straight out of The Ballade of Mackey Messer and the house was brought down by the surprisingly nostalgic aria reserved for Juan which has as its melodic core the seeds of the great September Song.

The sets were interesting, ranging from Rousseau to Botero and the choreography sublime, the chorus members creating the illusion of the ocean by lying down and moving their arms and legs in synchronized swimming fashion. There was a gorgeous woman who just reclined on a platform throughout Act III. She seemed to be a visual version of the musical undercurrent. Much more is going on in the tropics than just mundane cow trading.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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