Hans Krása’s Brundibár – Nigel Jarrett witnesses the powerful and moving conclusion of Welsh National Opera’s summer season on the theme of Freedom.
Resurrecting a Jewish children’s opera performed 76 years ago in a Nazi concentration camp is a gift for any company, if ‘gift’ is the right word in circumstances where the impetus has come from the company itself in dealing with unspeakable horrors. The realisation by Welsh National Opera’s artistic director, David Pountney, of Hans Krása’s Brundibár makes the most of this self-granted opportunity. To describe it as a moving conclusion to WNO’s ‘Freedom’ season would be an under-statement. It was painful, pertinent, and insofar as liberty is always under threat somewhere in one form or another, salutary. But it was also defiant in its concluding chorus of hope. Krása wrote the opera in 1938. He and his librettist, Adolf Hoffmeister, began rehearsals three years later at the Jewish orphanage in Prague, where children separated from their parents by the war were temporarily lodged. From then on the story takes an all-too-familiar route.
A performance had taken place at the orphanage in 1942, by which time Krása and his designer, František Zelenka, had been transported to Theresienstadt, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto set up by the SS in the Czech fortress town of Terezin. Theresienstadt was the place chosen by the Nazis to persuade the international community that it was treating Jewish prisoners humanely. It was in reality the place where they handed food and drink to them while the Red Cross was visiting and took them away the moment it had left. By July 1943 most of the orphanage staff and the children’s chorus in that first performance were in Theresienstadt. Krása re-cast the score and two months later Brundibár was premièred there and performed more than fifty times in 1944. It seems like a place where Jews were comparatively safe, but Theresienstadt’s prestige as a ‘model ghetto’ hid its function as a staging-post from which prisoners were eventually transported to the killing-chambers of Auschwitz. The conductor for Pountney’s production, WNO’s music director Tomáš Hanus, recalled in a video screened straight after the performance and as an essential part of it that his mother, who’d taken part in the original Brundibár, missed transportation to Auschwitz only because of a clerical error. Krása and many of the cast of Terezin’s Brundibár didn’t.
Pountney and his designer, Bethany Seddon, in their production for the WNO Youth Opera (members aged eleven to 18, with adult guests), eschew the work’s innocent mise-en-scène as depicted on a contemporary poster. We, the audience, queue for entrance to the WMC’s drape-darkened Weston Studio through a cage and are regaled with yellow scarves before taking our seats. Once we are inside, the tunnel gate is ‘locked’. We know who we are supposed to be. Signalled by a guard’s shrill whistle, the children stomp across the performing space in pairs and with heads bowed towards Toytown streets and houses. In the distance, from where they’ve come, a child’s scream is heard, in case we are in any doubt about what we are watching. Fourteen members of the WNO orchestra are lodged stage right like minstrels perched on ledges. Angharad Evans modestly lights this dark cavern of redoubt.
Krása’s music – he was a protegé of Zemlinsky – is both of its time and timeless. All the roles are shared for the WNO première and two performances the following day. The story tells how penniless Aninku (Manon Thomas, Penelope George) and Pepíček (Alfie Jones, Jacob Adams) set off to buy milk for their sick mother. They sing unavailingly for the Milkman (Lauren Williams, Dylan Mingay), who insists on payment. So they decide to busk like the street musician Brundibár (Steffan Lloyd Owen, John Ieuan Jones) with a song about geese, but he drowns them out and sends them packing. A Cat (Gracie Jones, Carys Davies) a Dog (Anton Rogan, Dylan Tilley) and a Sparrow (Megan Jones, Ellie Gent) are enlisted by the couple to form a busking choir. Brundibár is vocally overwhelmed and the money flows. But he steals it, only to be surrounded by the children and forced to reimburse. Others in this populous tale of desperation and the righting of a wrong are an Ice Cream Man (Sophie Perry, Tara Jones), a Baker (Euan McEvoy, Rhiannon Spannaus), and a Policeman (Josh Stanbury, Owen Parsons), and assorted Adults (Osian Thomas, Libero Tassinari, Isobel Adams, Josh Barnfield).
The point about the catchy final chorus is that it represents victory over a monster through co-operation and creativity, something which Hanus says was as important to the camp inmates’ chances of survival as food and drink. Seddon is also responsible for the wonderful costumes, including Brundibár’s fearsome carapace, impossible platform soles, and fantasy barrel-organ, complete with steam. At the end of the production, in response to a further whistle shriek, the children march off to their pre-thespian life, as a drape falls high and upstage to reveal starkly a picture of their camp’s barbed-wire boundary. It’s shocking: a theatrical, heart-stopping coup de foudre. That picture is followed by further video-ed information and testimony from Hanus (for instance, that transportation was in wagons used to ferry pigs to the slaughterhouse and that his mother and most of his family were lucky to survive). It keeps us in our seats – not that there is any chance of our leaving them prematurely – and includes propaganda footage of one of the original Brundibár performances.
The chorus was Alfie Jones, Anastasia Robbins, Beatrice Spence, Beth Durham, Bethan Stevens, Brisa Montes-Robins, Caitlin Allan, Cerys Johns, Corinna Sargent, Eleri Morris, Estelle Highgate, Evie Hamling, Ffion Pritchard, Gethin Williams, Heidi McAllister, Ian Gomez, Isabelle Mullet, Isaac Brooks, Isla Lloyd, Jason Sugunendran, Jessica Noonan, Kaveh Singh, Kamilli Kimiti, Leila Cheesewright, Martha Kirk, Manon Thomas, Molly Richards, Mona Ahmed, Penelope George, Peter Martin, Poppy Lloyd, Samuel Davies, Samuel Woods, Seren Horsey, Seren Hutcheson, Sofia Aldridge, Seren Holzmann.
Brundibár is about innocent children of one mind and heart triumphing over the avarice and unpleasantness of grown-ups; but this production illustrates the crushing historical baggage it will always carry.
WNO’s 2019 summer season, supported by talks, exhibitions and immersive events on many of the conditions subsumed under Freedom, has taken music-theatre to a different level. What a shame David Pountney is leaving the company. He has created a series of ever-broadening revelations about opera and its human contexts.
Nigel Jarrett won the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. So far, he’s had two collections of short stories, a novel, and a collection of poetry published. He’s included in the Library of Wales’s anthology of 20th– and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. A former newspaperman, he now writes for Wales Arts Review, Acumen poetry magazine, Jazz Journal, and others. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims a lot.