Ernst Krenek has long been a subject for intense study by Peter Tregear. His enthusiasm for the Czech heritage/Austrian/American composer’s work has resulted the Australian premiere of his Jonny spielt auf! (Jonny Strikes Up!) by IOpera, a company formed in 2007 by Gert Reifert and Peter Tregear in order to present non-mainstream operatic works in innovative ways.
Composed in 1926, this Zeitoper (opera of the times) – a Weimar Republic sub-genre – was wildly successful throughout Europe after being launched in Leipzig the following year. Nazi disapproval led to its suppression and Kenek’s ultimate flight to America in 1938, following Kurt Weill, a more celebrated contemporary who was also born in 1900, studied in Berlin around the same time and was also influenced by jazz idioms. One of the main reasons Krenek’s popularity may not have been as enduring as Weill’s is his librettist; Weill’s collaboration with Brecht led to some of the most iconic works of the 20th century whereas Krenek wrote his own libretto for Jonny. And it is the libretto that presents a problem no matter how well the work is performed. The plot is convoluted, ludicrously improbable and, most importantly, lacks a reason for the audience to care about any of the characters. We have a black jazz musician with questionable morals as the titular (although not central) character; a self-absorbed, spineless composer (Max) plus two leading ladies in the form of an easily seduced opera singer (Anita) and a maid (Yvonne) willing to abet the theft of an Amati violin from an arrogant womaniser (Daniello), who inexplicably falls under a train towards the end of the opera.
According to Tregear’s informative program notes, “the character of Jonny was inspired by Krenek’s encounter with Sam Wooding and his jazz band in 1925”. Who knows what Wooding might have thought of his caricature? At least Jonny’s attempt to justify his theft of the Amati by his hopes for a more enlightened, appreciative musical future might have met his approval. The more central role of Max may be of interest to an Australian audience since the character of Anita was inspired by Krenek’s relationship with the Australian virtuoso violinist Alma Moodie. To what degree Max actually reflects Krenek himself is a matter of conjecture, but the music suggests that he is not to be taken too seriously; just as there is some Romantic swelling of the orchestra a cheeky instrumental interjection pricks what is becoming an inflated bubble of self-importance.
One of the greatest strengths of this performance was the emphasis on the comic elements of the opera. Although presented in what was essentially a concert format with the orchestra on stage and soloists variously lining up at the front of the stage behind a phalanx of music stands, strategic costumes and props allied with efficient movement of cast members within a very confined space provided a surprising degree of theatrical substance. An audience favourite, the film sequences projected onto the large screen behind the orchestra enhanced the total theatrical experience significantly. Most of the eleven Scenes were accompanied by evocative black and white visuals, beginning with slightly scratched jerky footage of the Alps where Max and Anita meet by chance. Fascinating moving images from the period were interspersed with stills, scene titles and the odd quote – “Oh, a man!” – as in silent movies. A familiar Keystone Cops sequence was amusingly reflected in stage business as Louis Hurley, Cameron Sibly and Darcy Carroll blundered on and off in skilfully executed choreography. This was no mean feat, especially considering the demanding nature of the music.
A further reference to cinematic techniques can be heard in Krenek’s soundscape. The process of achieving a composition by juxtaposing or superimposing many pictures or designs in a visual montage finds a parallel in Krenek’s aural montage where Romantic surges and jazzy splashes merge with the neo-classical and atonal techniques of some of his contemporaries. As a vigilant and energetic conductor, Tregear successfully negotiated musical complexities of many sudden changes in tricky rhythms, dynamics, mood and instrumentation. He had a fine assembly of musicians to work with – fairly small in number but more than capable of producing a robust, full sound. There was accomplished playing to be found in all sections of this hybrid ensemble, but I was particularly struck by what only three violists were able to deliver in their featured passages. Concertmaster Ben Spiers made a most creditable fist of impersonating an Amati in his solos and Aaron Searle was a colourful asset on the banjo. Mind you, why an opera singer should be carrying a banjo around defies comprehension – apart adding to the story’s farcical element and providing a handy case for hiding a stolen violin.
While the instrumentalists were notable for their tight ensemble work, the singers were equally impressive in the way they embraced the performance and musical challenges. As Max, Fraser Findley was sometimes a little thin in tone, but his vocal range and the way he projected the tortured character of a man torn between the cold, sterile allure of the glacier and the hope of a happy future with Anita in America were admirable. An animated singer, he gave the role a healthy injection of tongue-in-cheek melodrama. In contrast, Lee Abrahmsen was every centimetre the fur stole clad opera diva as Anita, projecting beautiful, resonant tone to my seat in Row P of the Stalls. Many singers tend to pale a little in vocal power when singing beside her, but her vocal dominance was in keeping with her role.
Baritone Raphael Wong made a suitably arrogant and, finally, distraught Daniello. Of all the singers, his diction was the easiest to understand. Although the singers made a real effort with their diction, it is pretty well impossible to decipher all the words when most singers are at the top of their range. Given the video projections, it may have been impractical to provide surtitles, nevertheless, it was difficult to pick up some of the nuances of a work referencing a range of psychological as well as musical ideas. Copyright restrictions also preclude access to the original or the English translation by Jeremy Sams used for this performance via the Internet.
As Yvonne, Rebecca Rashleigh’s light soprano was generally clear and well projected. She threw herself into the soubrette role with delightful vivacity. Possessing a lively personality and strong voice, baritone Shoumendu Schornikow turned Jonny into quite an appealing rogue in the end.
Eighteen fine young voices comprised a chorus. Entering from the auditorium, they spread out in front of the stage for most of their numbers, giving the front rows a very intimate experience of operatic talent. The sopranos and altos were particularly effective as the voice of the glacier dissuading Max from ending his life when he discovers that Anita has had a one-night-stand with Daniello. Most of them are just embarking on their careers, in keeping with IOpera’s collaboration with the Richard Divall Emerging Artists Programme, created to develop singers of great potential and provide performance opportunities.
Looking around the sizeable audience in the Athenaeum, it was pleasing to see how many young people were being given an opportunity to hear this entertaining work in such a high quality performance. Thanks to Peter Tregear, Ernst Krenek will now be remembered by Melbourne audiences for more than his love life and the organ concerto he wrote for the opening of the Melbourne Concert Hall (Hamer Hall) in 1983.
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of “Jonny Strikes Up!” presented by IOpera in collaboration with The Orchestra Project at the Athenaeum Theatre on October 4, 2019.