Composer: Hans Krasa
Lyrics: Adolf Hoffmeister
Conductor: Nicholas Shaw
Director: PJ Harris
It’s difficult to convey the impact of this short programme (barely an hour and a half, including interval), at once joyous and poignant, commemorating the past and looking to the future. It was also a fine example of co-operation between arts organisations. Co-producers Opera North provided the Youth Company, the Royal Northern Sinfonia the musicians.
It is, however, the third arts organisation that is key to the whole enterprise. The Brundibar Arts Festival was founded by Sinfonia violinist Alexandra Raikhlina in 2016 and dedicated to the music and arts of the Holocaust. It takes its name from Hans Krasa’s children’s opera which in many ways symbolises the resilience of the Jewish artistic spirit in the face of torture and death.
Krasa originally wrote the opera in 1938 for a competition that was aborted with the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. It received clandestine performances in an orphanage in 1942, then, when Krasa was imprisoned in Terezin ghetto, a sort of pre-death camp bruited by the Nazis as a model of free artistic life, he reconstructed Brundibar for the instruments available. It was performed 55 times, the final one steeped in tragic irony. The staging was upgraded by the Nazis and filmed by the Red Cross on an inspection visit that turned into a propaganda coup. The deportation of most of the participants, including Krasa, to Auschwitz began in the days and weeks after the performance.
This year’s Brundibar Festival included a performance of the opera, high-spirited rather than light-hearted. Two children, Aninka and Pepicek, need to find milk to help their sick mother recover, but they have no money. They notice the organ-grinder Brundibar is prospering and decide to busk. Brundibar chases them away, so they enlist the services of cats, dogs and birds to overcome the bully. The ending is triumphant, but not conclusive: Brundibar warns them that there will always be another bully coming along, prophetic indeed for the Czech people who went from Nazi persecution to satellite of Stalin.
An outstanding performance by the Opera North Youth Company totally captured the freshness and sense of exhilaration in the music. Hazel Read and Scarlett Banks were wonderfully natural as the children, their voices blending beautifully, and Samuel Mills had real stage presence as the menacing Brundibar. A large cast featured many small solo parts (human, animal and inanimate) and, if some of the young voices came over more strongly than others, all shared a winning vitality. The air of fairytale fantasy was boosted by such things as dancing windows.
PJ Harris’ direction imaginatively used the energy and commitment of the young cast and Anna Yates’ designs were colourful and appealing. Nicholas Shaw, Youth Chorus Master at Opera North, blended the voices perfectly and obtained bright and rhythmically flexible playing from a dozen members of the Royal Northern Sinfonia Orchestra, with Milos Milivojevic’s accordion providing the sound of Brundibar’s barrel organ.
Overall the infectious sense of fun heightened the awareness of the tragedy involved – it was impossible not to think of the youngsters nearly 80 years ago whose last moments of pleasure this had been – but for all that the fun was there, a delightful performance of a delightful opera.
The performance of Brundibar was preceded by two works for string trio written by Hans Krasa in Terezin. The programme notes made frequent use of such words as “frantic”, “mania” and “frenzied” which don’t really do justice to their appeal. Tanec is a dance with definite hints of Czech folk music, Passacaglia and Fuga, Krusa’s final work before his deportation to Auschwitz, is more obviously ominous. The opening theme for cello has an eerie sense of doom and the same instrument obsessively drives the closing pages of agonised defiance. Alexandra Raikhlina introduced and led a performance of intense commitment.
Reviewed on January 30th 2022. Brundibar is repeated at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on February 7th 2022