OPERATIC JAZZ-BABY : ERNST KRENEK’S ‘JONNY’ EXHUMED IN LONG BEACH
Jonny--a.k.a. Johnny--didn’t exactly strike out when he was exhumed at the Center Theater in Long Beach, Saturday night. But he didn’t exactly strike up either.
If you happened to be around in the late 1920s, you will, of course, remember Jonny. He was that black-faced baritonal ersatz -American jazz-baby who brought a delirious flurry of fun and scandal to more than 100 opera houses, in 18 languages, starting in Leipzig and ending at the Met.
He was the quasi-hero of “Jonny Spielt Auf,” a title that loses something when translated as “Johnny Strikes Up.” The inquisitive reader must wonder, after all, what it is that Johnny strikes.
A match? An acquaintance? No, silly, a band--a nice popsy-funky band in a sonic world rife with traces of Puccini, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Strauss, Wagner, Weill and, most pervasive and most important, Ernst Krenek.
Krenek--a very intellectual, very analytical, very up-to-date, very serious, very ponderous, very German composer--wrote this temporarily popular semi-parody at a time when the whole world was flapping.
It was a time of new-fangled mechanical wonders, a time of tinsel decadence and Deco glitz, a time of booze and belles, a time of inter-War who-gives-a-damn aesthetics.
Krenek’s plot is a two-act tangle of amours and intrigues involving a temperamental composer, a free-living diva, a saucy French maid, a pompous violin virtuoso and a jazz artist who happens to be an adorable scoundrel.
Although the opera has been generally consigned to benign neglect for the last half-century, anyone with access to a history book knows the celebrated final tableau: Stolen violin in hand, Jonny climbs atop a railroad station clock which, in easy temporal metaphor, transforms itself into a globe; standing on top of the world, he fiddles while civilization Charlestons at his feet.
The Long Beach Opera, which approached the challenge with more daring than reverence, tinkered with the ending. Peter Mark Schifter, the stage director, left the ubiquitous clock unchanged and had Jonny lounge instead atop a railroad car, while a chorus line--left over, no doubt, from “No, No, Nanette"--pranced nearby holding blue balloons adorned with maps. The climactic impact wasn’t quite the same.
Even more damaging, perhaps, Long Beach took strange liberties with Krenek’s libretto. Although Krenek, aided by his wife, Gladys Nordenstrom, provided his own translation, the singers constantly were made to switch from English to the original German, for no apparent reason.
The annoying result, insulting both the composer and his audience, suggested that only selected portions of the text were worth understanding. To compound the disorientation, the leading tenor sang German with an unwitting American accent, English with an affected German accent.
Still, there was much to compel admiration, much to engage the eye and ear.
Abetted by Philipp Jung’s fanciful decors on the open stage--a flexible jumble of choo-choo train metaphors and roaring-'20s kitsch--Schifter made most of the semi-stylized action and inaction look spiffy. Elizabeth Keen provided some nice period-piece shimmies and shuffles. Randolph Mauldin conducted a too-distant backstage orchestra with verve and precision and kept in touch with his singers via closed-circuit television.
The youthful cast, with one problematic exception, performed with unabating energy, conviction and pizzaz.
The audience seemed mystified by some of the clashes of mood and tone, tested by some of the longueurs. Nevertheless, it gave Krenek a standing ovation at the end.
He deserved it. A prophet much honored in Europe and relatively neglected in his adopted land, the Palm Springs resident has secured his chapter in history. It is possible, however, that “Jonny” will represent only a footnote in that chapter.
The opera may not be a masterpiece, but it certainly isn’t the fluff exercise most observers expected. After the Met premiere in 1929, W.J. Henderson of The Sun reported that “it is not a solemn work of art at all, but a keen satire and . . . a pretty good musical comedy.”
One cannot help but wonder how it could have sounded that way in New York 57 years ago. Today it sounds thorny, convoluted, bold, thoughtful and, yes, modern.
The fox trot, the tango, the minstrel show, the black bottom, the car horn, the train whistle and the xylophone all pop in and out of the musical fabric, to be sure. So do fleeting references to “Madama Butterfly” (the heroine’s Leitmotif ) and “Das Rheingold” (a shimmer associated with a misbegotten ring). These, however, are incidental elements.
The essential language of “Jonny” can be described as dissonant-romantic. There are lots of introspective monologues, lyrical duets, old-fashioned multilayered ensembles. Krenek moves from bleak sentiment to lush indulgence to sarcastic commentary to cartoon distortion with dazzling ease.
Some of the profundities, unfortunately, end up seeming turgid, and much of the funny music really isn’t funny--just clever.
For all its brilliance and for all its invention, “Jonny” remains an uneasy fusion of the potentially serious and the would-be comic. It documents a brief instance when Krenek wanted to be accessible to the masses. That may suggest a contradiction in terms.
The impact of the work wasn’t properly enhanced, in any case, by Kevin Maynor in the title role (a role shared at the Met, where Jonny had to be a Jolson-esque entertainer in blackface, by Michael Bohnen and Lawrence Tibbett). Encouraged to play the charismatic protagonist as a misplaced Sportin’ Life, Maynor slinked through the evening with more awkwardness than charm. He stressed unsmiling sleaze and disfigured his lines with dark, oddly muffled basso tone.
Sympathy thus passed, virtually by default, to the other principals. Nadia Pelle oozed allure as Anita, the diva. William Livingston found just the right combination of ardor and vulnerability for Max, the composer. Constance Hauman was remarkably sexy and sweet as the maid, Yvonne. Robert Orth preened heroically as the violinist, Daniello.
Neat cameos were contributed, as usual, by Ken Remo as the hotel director and Michael Gallup as Anita’s manager.
The program booklet, incidentally, documented typical Long Beach effusion and confusion.
The effusion came from the general director: “We all share one goal--to entertain you with virtuosity, spectacle and with humanity.” The confusion came from the annotator, who mistook the successful 1927 world premiere in Leipzig with a Munich performance that produced a sociopolitical riot two years later.