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Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, March 2009

Had Charlie Chaplin known the atrocities the Nazis would eventually commit, he said he never would have made “The Great Dictator.” Kurt Weill’s 1934 Der Kuhhandel, with its mocking of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels, is somewhat in the same position. The German version was left unfinished, but an English version was mounted in London in 1935. In German, it was reconstructed by Weill’s collaborator Lys Simonette, and brilliantly produced at the Vienna Volksoper in 2008. It concerns lovers whose cow is confiscated for non-payment of a military tax, imposed by the nation’s leaders to buy arms which in the end prove faulty, enabling the lovers to end up happily. If it sounds confused, it is. The music, even in the mouths of corrupt politicians and vainglorious military men, is pleasantly folk-like (Offenbach is never far off), hardly as acerbic as Weill’s usual style. The singing is top flight (Ursula Pfitzner, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Rolf Haunstein, Carlo Hartmann et al.) with Christophe Eberle leading the excellent chorus and orchestra. Fine sound (Stereo and Dolby Digital Surround) and clear video.

Richard Traubner
American Record Guide, March 2009

Immigration to the USA was one of the best things that could have happened to Kurt Weill. The Broadway milieu he strove so mightily to be part of was just the tonic he needed to wean himself of heavy pretentiousness, while still remaining true to his exacting standards. Indeed, musicals like Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars will possibly enjoy a longer shelf life than works he composed in Europe in the 1930s, such as Das Silbersee and Der Kuhhandel. A Kingdom for a Cow as it was called at the Savoy Theatre, London, in 1935, has resurfaced in various places, sometimes performed in English, sometimes in German. Whether a recording or a performance (I saw it in a first-class student performance in New York), the operetta is a slog to sit through. One has expectations of a transitional work, in between, say, Mahagonny and Knickerbocker Holiday, but it is more like the former than the latter, requiring heavy voices and a fairly serious tone. About warring states and arms sales, it is the European equivalent of the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, but without much operetta lightheartedness.

The Vienna Volksoper performs a version, in German, that was previously seen at the Bregenz Festival and in Britain under the auspices of Opera North, a great champion of operetta. Musically, it is first rate. The standard of singing is probably higher than at the work’s 1935 premiere, and the orchestra and chorus are likewise topnotch. The Volksoper forces milk the solos, duets, and ensembles for all their Weillian worth.

The libretto, originally by Berlin theatre dramaturge Robert Vambery, poses big problems that even experienced director David Pountney cannot overcome. Despite the palm trees, hanging laundry, and Mediterranean military uniforms, this seems a very lugubrious locale; and the Alpine costumes for the ensemble only increase the Germanic feel. (Are we in a comic-opera San Marino? The locale is a fictitious Caribbean island, ‘Santa Maria’.) The plot is quite dull—a peasant wants to marry a fair lass, and the cow that will supply their livelihood is seized by the fascist government just before their nuptials, more than once. Behind this flimsy story are shady munitions deals and extensive bribery and shades of prewar Hitler and Mussolini, but the script does not play terribly comically. Calling Meilhac & Halevy or WS Gilbert!

The main thrill of Der Kuhhandel is recognizing the tunes that Weill will use again on Broadway, all of them in the first act—songs that would develop into the ‘September Song’ (Knickerbocker Holiday) and numbers from Lady in the Dark. Otherwise, Weill’s preoccupation with tangos is evident, there is as a nice barcarolle and a moving parting duet for the two lovers, and a pattery first-act finale that allowed for a bit of pleasant Offenbachian indulgence on his part.

In Act II comes a bordello scene—a Weill favorite, but nowhere near as memorable as the one in Three-Penny Opera. The Volksoper, which has never really recovered from the flaming success of La Cage aux Folles several years back, revels a bit too long in the company’s contortions of transvestism, Lesbianism, and other goings-on.

The video production is fair enough, but a lot of close-ups doesn’t make this show any funnier or more satirical. Subtitles available, with a plot synopsis and brief notes.

Chris Mullins
Opera Today, February 2009

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 Jäger, 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.

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