Over the last three months Capriccio has embarked on a major project to record the music of Kurt Weill. It is unclear what the full scope of this project will be; but that of the first two volumes, both of which are five-CD boxes, presents a variety of Weill’s different approaches to music in support of theater. There is so much diversity in this collection that I should probably begin just by enumerating the content. The works included in the first volume are as follows:
- Die Dreigroschenoper (the threepenny opera)
- “Die sieben Todsünden” (the seven deadly sins)
- Mahagonny Songspiel
- “Der Lindberghflug” (Lindbergh’s flight)
- Der Jasager (he who says yes)
- Der Silbersee (the silver lake)
Those in the second volume are:
- Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (the rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny)
- “Der Zar lässt sich photographieren” (the tsar has his photograph taken)
- Der Kuhhandel (translated into English as “shady dealing” but also known as A Kingdom for a Cow in a revised English version)
- Happy End
The entire project to date has been directed by Jan Latham-König, who is presumably also the director of his own König-Ensemble. This is probably a vocal group, since the instrumental performances seem to be by WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln, the Cologne-based resident orchestra for West German Radio. On the basis of copyright dates, one can assume that the original recordings were made between 1984 and 1997.
About two years ago I put in a lot of time with a major addition to Weill scholarship, Stephen Hinton’s massive (almost 600 pages) book Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform. While I had much to criticize about Hinton’s approach, there is no doubt that this is a book that would pique the curiosity of most of its readers. For a long time Weill’s German catalog (as opposed to his Broadway shows) was known in the United States only through an English translation by Marc Blitzstein of Bertolt Brecht’s libretto for Die Dreigroschenoper that become a major off-Broadway hit in the Fifties. (Whenever you listen to a pop singer doing “Mack the Knife,” you are listening to Blitzstein’s words, usually with modifications.)
A few decades later the Metropolitan Opera decided to add the full-length Mahagonny (as opposed to the “Songspiel”) to its repertoire; and other opera companies have followed suit since then. In my home town of San Francisco, Ute Lemper gave a performance of “Die sieben Todsünden” with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony; and many know Happy End for the song “Surabaya Johnny.” A few may even know that “September Song,” from the Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday, was based on a song that was originally in Der Kuhhandel.
Through these new releases, those curious about Weill have a much better opportunity to grasp the breadth of his work and the diversity of his styles. It is not all sharp-edged interpretations of Brechtian agitprop (which some of us jokingly call “curt and vile”). Indeed, Der Kuhhandel is a comic opera that pokes fun at the spirit of social uprising that Brecht championed so seriously; and the humor is as robust as what one may encounter in the comic operas of Jacques Offenbach.
There is much to admire in the performances that Latham-König brings to these recordings. The advance over those old Columbia vinyls from the Fifties that featured Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya as soloist and William Bruckner-Ruggberg is prodigiously impressive. Finally, one gets to hear some of Weill’s finest songs performed with a secure sense of pitch! The only real disappointment in Anja Silja, who, in general, tends to be too occupied with “grand opera” and is out of depth in singing the texts that Brecht wrote in English for Mahagonny. My own personal preference is for Teresa Stratas, whose performance of the “Alabama Song” is shown in the video above. On the other hand Silja is far more comfortable with the German texts, particularly in her interpretation of Jenny’s song about “the Jimmys from Alaska,” which never made it to the Columbia recording because it was too difficult for Lenya to sing.
The bottom line is that, even if this project does not advance into Weill’s later works, particularly those in English, Capriccio has created a valuable resource that excellently covers the development of Weill’s style as a composer before his departure from Germany.