Murderous goldsmiths and jazz-crazed rogues
Milan and Palermo, Italy — Out of jazz-crazed, Expressionist-filled, mid-1920s Germany sprang two operas that have proved to be the most significant lyric works to emerge in northern Germany between the two world wars: Paul Hindemith's ``Cardillac'' (first produced in Dresden on Nov. 9, 1926) and Ernst Krenek's ``Jonny Spielt Auf!'' (introduced in Leipzig on Feb. 10, 1927). By a unique coincidence, both works were staged in Italy this spring: ``Cardillac'' in the original language at Milan's Teatro alla Scala, and ``Jonny Spielt Auf!'' in an Italian translation at Palermo's Teatro Massimo.
``Cardillac'' and ``Jonny Spielt Auf!'' (roughly translated as ``Johnny Strikes up [the Band]!'') are products of their time - an era when dance halls and cabarets featured the Charleston and the public rushed to buy the newest jazz records arriving from the United States. It was a period of much experimentation in the visual arts, too, a time when painters of the Expressionist school were attempting to depict the ``inner self.''
To some extent, both Hindemith and Krenek rejected - at least in ``Cardillac'' and ``Jonny Spielt Auf!'' - the atonalism and serialism that were then in vogue among Viennese Expressionists Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Instead, the two composers in Germany opted for a tonal idiom. (The rejection of atonalism was permanent in the case of Hindemith, who vigorously opposed Schoenberg's 12-tone-serial school and sought to revitalize tonality.)
The original Cardillac
Although Hindemith revised ``Cardillac'' in 1952 (adding new characters and scenes as well as rewriting the libretto), the La Scala production used the original 1926 version with its German text based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale, ``Das Fr"aulein van Scuderi'' (The Girl from Scuderi). The story centers on an 18th-century Parisian goldsmith named Cardillac, an artisan so in love with his creations that he feels compelled to murder the buyer of each masterpiece so that he will never have to part with it.
The jazz element in ``Cardillac'' is subtle: the mournful wail of a tenor sax at the opening of the second act, repeated trombone slides when Louis XIV visits Cardillac's workshop, a syncopated, jazzy prelude to the third act with its ghoulish graveyard scene. Hindemith's created passages that demonstrate tremendous technical skill on the one hand, yet seem short on melodic inspiration on the other. The harmonic texture is mildly dissonant - a dissonance made by the juxtaposition of multiple contrapuntal melodies.
The Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production unveiled at La Scala was a superb realization of the Expressionist elements that inspired the opera's creation: angled houses, skewed walls, hideous face masks. Donald McIntyre was excellent in the title role, while the extremely complicated score was brilliantly conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.
A stereotyped `Jonny'
Krenek himself wrote the book of ``Jonny Spielt Auf!'' Based on a 1926 European's notion of what a 1926 black American was like, the story is as ridiculous as it is preposterous. It turns the black character of the title, Jonny, into a caricature - into a theft-prone, jazz-oriented, sexually motivated rogue.
In Krenek's opera, Jonny is a black band leader from Alabama. True to stereotype, he steals the fiddle of Daniello, an oily virtuoso who has himself stolen the mistress of the true protagonist, Max, a brooding, intellectual opera composer. At the end, Jonny and his jazz symbolically bestride the globe.
``Jonny'' cannot in any way be called a ``jazz opera.'' Instead, it is a post-verist work that hints of the Expressionist/atonal style later adopted by the composer. There is a big, full symphonic sound from a traditional pit orchestra with a hint of jazz harmony from time to time, a bit of syncopation now and then, and an occasional jazz rhythm, especially that of the Charleston. The score's few brief jazz sequences - meant for scene changes - were prerecorded for this production.
Krenek employed a m'elange of styles when writing for the soloists. The soprano arias for Anita, the opera singer, are reminiscent of ``Un bel d`i,'' while those of Max, the composer, are more modern and hint of atonalism. As for Jonny - though he is forced to skip and dance (violin in hand) to the rhythm of the Charleston - his vocal lines are cast in the traditional bel canto style of Italian opera. Bruce Hubbard's rendition of Jonny's Act II aria, ``Tutto `e mio'' was unquestionably the vocal highlight of the evening.
The stage picture created by Filippo Crivelli in Palermo was only partly effective. At times the sets were stylized in art deco manner, at other times pseudo-realistic. At the show's climax - the train station scene - there was a hint of Expressionism.
The Teatro Massimo production made good entertainment even while violating the composer's intentions. The final scene lost its symbolism. Instead of Jonny straddling a globe while playing his fiddle (the huge train station clock supposedly transforms itself in full view of the audience into a globe), Jonny came down the center aisle dancing the Charleston while spotlights blazed and crisscrossed back and forth. The stage itself was transformed into a spectacular night club scene straight out of the Folies Berg`ere.
The restaging of these two works raise questions. Did Hindemith and Krenek succeed in creating jazz operas? Are these two operas viable works in terms of today's lyric theater?
The first question must elicit a qualified answer, since, as these two productions amply demonstrated, neither work is essentially a ``jazz'' opera, but first, limited efforts at an amalgamation of the jazz and operatic idioms. They helped pave the way for later masterpieces, such as George Gershwin's ``Porgy and Bess'' of 1935.
As entities in today's opera houses, they were both big successes - as the audiences in Milan and Palermo indicated with their enthusiastic and generous applause. ``Cardillac'' earned this response by the cumulative effect of its spiraling music drama. And while ``Jonny'' is not Expressionism - and certainly not true jazz - it is great fun!