“The Good Soldier Schweik”

Matthew DiBattista, center, as Schweik, and members of the cast. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

When brilliant composers die young, whether it’s Bizet or Gershwin and especially Mozart, people wonder what they might have accomplished had they lived longer. Robert Kurka died in 1957, at age 35, before the premiere of his sole opera, “The Good Soldier Schweik,” which was commissioned and performed by New York City Opera. It’s based on the 1923 novel of the same name by Jaroslav Hasek, an author who also died young – at age 39 – having completed just four of the projected six parts of the book.
“The Good Soldier Schweik” is an anti-war satire that reflects the author’s own experiences during World War I, in particular that of fighting for a cause that isn’t near and dear – in this case precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Schweik is an Everyman, somewhat calmly wandering from one calamity or sticky situation to another, and we never know for sure if he’s a little soft in the head or blissfully optimistic that things will work out in the end. In a way, he’s the focusless focal point, and in Long Beach Opera’s production he’s performed by the much talented Matthew DiBattista.
Although Kurka himself was of Czech descent, he was born and raised in America, and his opera – with a libretto by Lewis Allen – was written in English. Most notably, it calls to mind the work of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (“The Three-Penny Opera,” “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”) as well as “Cabaret.” Here, it bounces from the tavern to the asylum to the field infirmary. The broad comic action is bolstered by lively, brassy music – literally, for there are no strings – and military marches and fanfares and Czech-like folk melodies drift in and out.
The staging suits this sort of carnivalesque atmosphere, minimal and avant-garde and frequently as zany as a runaway college theater production, but then again this is characteristic of the company itself, which can resemble a puppy-like underdog. Their recent offerings – Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” and Carl Orff’s “The Clever One” – were in the same vein.
By itself, such craziness would grow tiresome, but what punctuates “The Good Soldier Schweik” are the heartfelt arias that often emerge from the wreckage of the previous scene, as if everyone has cleared out of Vulcan’s forge and now the place is quiet.
The cast, many of whom have performed previously with the company, seem comfortable working with one another. I wish I could write about them all, for instance Peabody Southwell as the Baronin v. Botzenheim, looking like she stepped out of a canvas by Fragonard, or the exasperated Lieutenant Lukasch as sung and acted by Jeremy Huw Williams. It’s all highly entertaining, and yet there’s a lingering poignancy when we think of Schweik at the end of the story, laying down his rifle and walking away, who knows where and to what fate.
The Good Soldier Schweik, which played last Saturday at the Center Theatre in Long Beach, is being performed at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. The company’s artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, conducts. Stage direction and choreography is by Ken Roht, and the set is designed by Justin Jorgensen. Tickets, $45 to $95. Call (562) 432-5934 or go to longbeachopera.org. ER


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