Monday 16 February 2015

Brundibar at the Imagine Festival

Brundibar - Mahogany Opera Group
Brundibar - Mahogany Opera Group
Hans Krasa Brundibar; Mahogany Opera, dir: Frederic Wake-Walker, cond: Alice Farnham; Imagine Festival at Purcell Room
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 13 2015
Imaginative and vivid performance of Krasa's charming and poignant children's opera

In a normal world, the children's opera Brundibar would be seen as a small but interesting part of a distinguished career. But the opera's composer Hans Krasa had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Born in Prague in 1899, his mother was Jewish and in 1942 was interned in Terezin (Theresienstadt), so the opera is one of a small group of works which testify to a talent extinguished. But Terezin was a showcase for the Nazis, so Krasa was able to re-work Brundibar (written for a competition in 1938) and the opera was performed by a cast of children in Terezin some 55 times.

Brundibar - Mahogany Opera Group
Brundibar - Mahogany Opera Group
How to reflect this troubled, multi-layered history in a performance of what is essentially a happy, positive piece? But the work's parable about coming together in solidarity to conquer evil was surely not without intended relevance to the contemporary politics. Happily, for the production by Frederic Wake-Walker, designed by Anna Jones, which was presented at the Purcell Room by Mahogany Opera Group as part of the South Bank Centre's Imagine Children's Festival on 13 February 2015, Krasa's opera was given in an imaginative and direct production which did nothing to complicate issues. Instead the work was prefixed by a 25 minute Interactive Introduction by Simon Wallfisch.

The majority in the audience were children and Simon Wallfisch's introduction was very much aimed at them. Dressed in a smart suit and tie, he divided the audience into two unequal groups and essentially got the larger group to verbally bully the minority. Then he talked to the children about how it had happened (never trust men in suits!) and how they felt about it. And being far less inhibited than we adults, the children were happy to discuss this, coming up with some funny but also touching and disturbing things.
From here it was easy to lead into Terezin where Simon Wallfisch's grandmother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, was one of the few survivors from the children interned. We saw a Nazi propaganda film of the end of the opera, performed in Terezin, and heard a song by Ilse Weber who was interned in Terezin. As bass Piotr Lempa and guitarist Steven Joseph played Weber's song Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt, we saw drawings and paintings of the camp done by children interned.

Even as an adult the introduction was illuminating and disturbing, and it was clear that Simon Wallfisch very much held the attention of the young audience as well. I only know Wallfisch's work as a baritone (he will be singing Albert in English Touring Opera's production of Massenet's Werther in Autumn 2015), but he is clearly a gifted animateur too.

Brundibar - Mahogany Opera Group
Brundibar - Mahogany Opera Group
The opera was presented by Mahogany Opera Group in association with Jubilee Opera, it used local children from Pembroke Academy of Music. There was just one adult amongst the singers, bass Piotr Lempa as Brundibar the evil organ grinder. The accompanying instrumental ensemble was similarly mixed with musicians from the South Bank Sinfonia joined by young players from the Centre for Young Musicians. Alice Jones's design consisted of a large structure reminiscent of a piece of run-down fairground with a large 'machine' stage left for Brundibar.

Costumes were essentially realistic, but stylised with lovely imaginative touches, and the animals were dressed as humans with again small touches to reflect their- species. Adolf Hoffmeister's libretto was sung in a very effective English version by Jack Wake-Walker.

Hans Krasa in his music, never writes down to the children though the opera is full of tunes, and his instrumental writing is imaginative and complex. Frederic Wake-Walker has worked with the children's opera group Jubilee Opera before, and he had got a terrific performance from the children. It was amazing to see and hear the small singing actors transformed on stage.

The opera tells the story of Anniku (Lana Reiter) and Pepicek (Adam Bennow) who are trying to earn money to buy milk for their sick mother (Tamara John). Their attempts to sing are drowned out by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (Piotr Lempa), whose music dominates all. Finally the children are aided by three animals, Sparrow (Marie Sol Glendza), Cat (Isadora Affejee) and Dog (Rowan Halett) and they rouse the children of the town to solidarity to attack Brundibar and destroy his organ.

There was a large cast, with children slipping out of the chorus to take solo roles with Elliot John as Doctor, Angel Opong-Ntime as Milkman, Bennahiti Ozzy-Mmodu as Ice-cream Seller, Isimenme Usideme as Baker, Chelsea Usideme as Dibble, Joshua Usideme and Caelan Ho as Chief of Police, Janice Ho as Monkey, Christopher Alafia as Boris and Alicia Sfarijlani, Marissa Sfarijlani, Amira Lagzouli as Milk Bottles. Piotr Lempa, gorgeously attired as Brundibar, was suitably lively and charismatic as the evil organ grinder.

All were commendably committed and sang with real charm and perspicacity (the work is through composed, with only some passages of melodrama). Under Alice Farnham's confident direction the instrumentalists made the most of the opportunities given them by Krasa in his many instrumental interludes. Perhaps it would have been an advantage to have had the players in a pit to aid the projection of the quieter voices, but this was my only small point, in a production which delighted and charmed.

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