15 Feb 2009

Kurt Weill’s Der Kuhhandel at Volks Oper Wien

The Kurt Weill-composed operetta Arms and the Cow premiered in 1935 under the title A Kingdom for a Cow, according to Erwin Berger’s booklet essay for this DVD of a 2007 VolksOper Vien staging of David Pountney’s production.

Berger, in a “traduction” by Uwe Lukas J├Ąger, doesn’t go on to explain the change in title, nor does he comment on the most alluring bit of music in Weill’s score: a strong foretaste of the melodic material that would become the standard “September Song,” which Weill would compose after his move to the USA to start his career as a Broadway composer. Try track 22, “Juans Lied.”

A failure in its initial run, Arms and the Cow may have been a bit too pointed in its satire for an operetta - even relevant, of all things, in that frequently frivolous genre. Set in a very Teutonic-inspired version of Latin America, the story revolves around corrupt leaders and the arms salesman who profit off them, with poor Juan and his intended bride caught up in the machinations when Juan’s cow, his one claim to property and success, is taken by the government as a tax penalty. Read that line as many times as possible and then just shrug it off. Everything ends happily, at any rate.

How much of the operetta seen here resembles the original production can’t be easily judged. A brief note in small font on the back cover of the DVD case credits the libretto to Robert Vambery “in a revised text by Reinhard Palm.” That would explain the references to Botox and the axis of evil. Pountney doesn’t lay on the politics too heavily, thankfully, letting the cartoonish characterizations and frequently incomprehensible plot developments bubble along, comically enough. The most amusing character is the arms salesman Mr. Jones, in a performance by Michael Kraus primarily delivered in German, with the odd English exclamation and expletive. Kraus somehow manages to convey an “Ugly American” attitude even barking and growling in German. Carlo Hartmann spends most of the staging in a suspended divan, portraying the lazy and ethically dubious President Mendez. Most every operetta has at least one role for a comic actor to sink his/her teeth into and tear it into gruesome shreds (think Frosch in Fledermaus). Here Wolfgang Gratschmair provides the dental workout, chewing the scenery as Ximenez, an aide to the president. The young lovers, as is also often the case, are a fairly dull pair, and neither Dietmar Kerschbaum as Juan nor Ursula Pfitzner as his love Juanita have impressive voices, both being uncomfortably edgy in the top range.

Weill’s score has too little of his inimitable voice, but the music is still the best part of the show, from the mock national anthem that serves as the curtain raiser, through the romantic laments and comic patter numbers, to the toe-tapping ensemble finale. Christoph Eberle and the Volksoper forces serve it up with energy and style.

The packaging leaves much to be desired, with the cast listing and other credits only found on the back of the jewel case. Some sloppy editing results in misspellings in the subtitles. In fact, the menu screen offers the option to “select titel” (sic).

At about two hours and twenty minutes, Arms and the Cow is overlong, and while always at least mildly entertaining, only Weill completists or indiscriminate lovers of operetta may want to spend that much time fretting about Juan’s kuh.

Chris Mullins