Opera review: Carl Off's Die Kluge and Der Mond

Two fairytale operas are staged with a sense of fun for a wide audience

The reputation of Carl Orff rests heavily on Carmina Burana, one of the most popular classical works by a 20th century composer. But Orff was not a one-hit wonder. Among his other works are two one-act operas based on fairytales by the Brothers Grimm. The opera company of the National Theatre in Prague is performing Die Kluge (The Wise Woman) and Der Mond (The Moon) in Czech translation with English supertitles. The production attempts to make both works fun for people who are not necessarily opera fans. The music itself is fairly accessible already, taking influences from folk and other popular music. The new staging shows opera need not be serious and heavy.

Die Kluge, which premiered in Frankfurt in 1943, takes its plot from the fairy tale The Peasant's Wise Daughter. A peasant finds a golden mortar and is jailed by the king for not having the golden pestle as well. When he says his daughter warned him this would happen, the king wants to meet her. This being a fairytale the king and the wise woman soon get married. Another dispute comes up involving a donkey, and the king and the wise woman quarrel, but all is not lost.

Director Jiří Nekvasil and set designer Daniel Dvořák take a somewhat straightforward approach to this one. The set is made of movable panels with black-and-white Expressionist-influenced designs. The minor characters have faces painted white, with neat black streaks in their white hair and black details on the white costumes. The major roles have bright blue, red, orange, yellow and green storybook-style costumes, and brightly colored hair. In a bit of fun, three troublemakers in modern dress with modern smartphones appear in the aisles and at the edge of the stage to intervene in the action and even deviate a bit from the score, reminding people how good the same author's Carmina Burana is.

The cast — led on opening night by Roman Janál as the king, František Zahradníček as the peasant and Jana Sibera — made it all amusing enough, but it was the weaker of the two pieces since it didn't push the envelope. It was professional and clever, but a bit dated.

The Mond, which premiered in 1939 in Munich, is set for no apparent reason in East Germany in the 1970s. Director Nekvasil and set designer Dvořák make the absolute most of their random but compelling idea.

The absurdity, which grows as the piece continues, makes the whole evening worthwhile. A giant mockup of an old-fashioned TV set carries the start of an old fairytale segment, the sort of thing that was popular on Eastern bloc TV and to some extent still survives. Children in pajamas are watching it, and apparently fall asleep and dream the rest of the opera.

The Mond has a narrator, who appears onstage with a giant head, the sort of thing a sports mascot would wear. He resembles the figure from the TV show. Jaroslav Březina amazingly was able to sing and also act with this obviously difficult costume.

The plot couldn't be simpler. Four people find the moon in the trees of one town and decide to steal it for their own town. The woods are filled with people in 1970s fashions, playing outdoor games, exercising and lounging in bathing suits to the moonlight. Of course, they have very bad haircuts as well. The four visitors use a baby blue Trabant station wagon to steal the moon. Cast members chase them in slow motion, eventually running backwards as the Trabant doesn't actually move.

The piece requires a choir, and they as seen all wearing matching East German track suits, with matching bad-haircut wigs. DDR, seen on the track suits and other places, means Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official name of East Germany.

The action eventually switches to the front of a highrise prefabricated building, with even more characters from East German 1970s life and TV culture taking to the stage in what by now has turned into organized chaos. A bit of knowledge of the era will help explain why Winnetou, a Native American character, turns up. Why he and the rest of the cast turns into stumbling zombies is something you have to work out for yourself. František Zahradníček, who was the king in the first part, turns up as St Peter in this segment. He rides in on Sputnik.

The National Theatre certainly succeeded in making a pleasant evening for people who are not opera experts. The musical and vocal performances are, as one expects at the National Theatre, first rate. The cast, including mines and dancers as well as singers, seems to be having great fun especially in the second part as they frolic in their bad fashions, throwing the usually serious operatic attitude to the winds.

Staging the pieces in Czech translation rather than the original German opens the text up to some colloquial jokes and freedom with the original text, although it isn't really ad libbed. The supertitles in English have translations of the everything.

Both works together clock in at three and a half hours, so it may not be suitable for small children. There are also one or two off-color jokes. But teens who speak Czech and know a little about the old DDR may have fun, and people who grew up watching communist-era TV will certainly appreciate the second half.

For more information and upcoming dates, see www.narodni-divadlo.cz.

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