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CD Review

Kurt Weill

The Tsar Has His Picture Taken

  • Der Zar lässt sich photographieren
Cologne Radio Choir
Cologne Radio Orchestra/Jan Latham-König
Capriccio 60007-1
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A rarity brought to light.

Yet another outstanding entry in Capriccio's heroic Kurt Weill series and a major hole in Weill's recorded catalogue plugged. Georg Kaiser, perhaps Weill's favorite German collaborator (the Brecht collaboration, although it produced terrific work, came with nettles and thorns), supplied the libretto, and Weill subtitled the piece an "opera buffa." However, as with Mozart, this hardly qualifies as a light-hearted romp. Indeed, it features the kind of humanistic ethical dilemma that attracted Weill again and again.

In Mme. Angèle's fashionable photography studio, the help make ready to photograph the Tsar. Suddenly, terrorists break in, replace Mme. Angèle and her employees with their own people, and put a gun, whose trigger is attached to a length of rubber tubing and bulb, inside the camera. Obviously, under the guise of photography, they plan to assassinate the tsar, who arrives with his entourage. Unfortunately, the tsar, in an ordinary suit, turns out to be a very charming, flirtatious young man, strongly attracted to the phony Angèle. Ordering his retinue out of the studio, he confesses to her that his official role never allows him to get close to anyone, and he's lonely. He aspires to be a "man who strolls the boulevards with other men, all his equals," and perhaps have a brief affair in the most romantic of cities – the Paris of the travel posters. He asks that the picture show not the tsar, but the human being. The despot seems to see himself as a closet democrat, but this could be a ruse of seduction. He asks for her friendship. The false Angèle faces an ethical pickle: should she pull the trigger? She hesitates too long. The young man, sensing her unease, tries to calm her by playfully suggesting that, first, he take her picture. The only way she can stop him is to declare passionate love. At this point, the tsar's bodyguards enter to tell him that they have uncovered a plot and that assassins are even now in the building. The real Angèle and her staff are released, they decide to keep mum about the murder attempt to avoid arrest, the camera is replaced again, and the tsar, this time in full official regalia, finally has his picture taken.

Beneath the farcical elements – notably the conventional comic spanners that continually get thrown in the assassin's way – lies a serious meditation on duty and social forms. Total freedom is a delusion. "Everyone must obey something," says the tsar. He himself cannot be his own master because "the tsar is only an idea." That is, no one obeys him because of his personal qualities (as is shown by the fact that he can't manipulate the assassin, no matter how much charm he turns on), but because of the social position he holds. Even so, the social position constricts him. When his personal danger becomes apparent, he can't get rid of his bodyguards, even though he wants to be alone with the false Angèle, and furthermore he knows it. These ideas seem to have occurred to the assassin for the first time and more than a little stir her confusion. If her leader's rhetoric of "liberation" is an illusion, where does her duty lie? To her cause? In her attraction to a charming man, not at all the monster she thought? The opera leaves these questions unresolved.

Written in 1928, the musical idiom may surprise those expecting another Dreigroschenoper. First, the music is continuous, rather than chopped into separate numbers. Second, it lies closer to something like Weill's earlier Violin Concerto, probably due to the fact that Kaiser and Weill began their collaboration on this work in 1924. Kaiser had trouble finishing the libretto and suggested setting his play Der Protagonist instead. Weill did, to great success. However, he may well have written some music for Der Zar beforehand. Technically, the work shares more than a little with Busoni's Arlecchino, although the idiom (and the satire) stings more. It's Busoni's "puppet-play" opera turned to social commentary. Weill does use popular dance-band forms, but not in his familiar voice. There are no intended Schläger ("hits") – no "Mack the Knife" or "Bilbao-Song," for example. Nevertheless, we do see hints of the "mature" Weill, notably devices that contribute to an ironic distance on the action. A men's chorus acts both in character (policemen, conspirators, entourage) and as impersonal commentary. In the original production, they dressed identically in top hats, morning coats, and white beards – a parody of embassy staff. The trite farcical elements of the plot distance one as well, as do the little orchestral fox-trots Weill sneaks in to accompany the action. The device in the forefront is a tango, known as the "Angèle Tango," which emanates from a record player, as the tsar and the beautiful assassin flirt with one another. Weill himself supervised the recording session – after all, he thought of it as a theatrical element in the opera – and was rather surprised, although pleased, when the number caught on with the general public outside the theater. It surprises me as well, since it's not especially melodic, although highly effective as it accompanies the onstage singers.

The performance stands among the better of the series. The opera comes over as genuine drama, for one thing. Barry McDaniel does particularly well as the tsar, striking one mainly as charming and a bit foolishly romantic, rather than as a cynical would-be seducer. Jan Latham-König keeps the music moving crisply. The moment of the tango comes off as a magnificent coup de theatre, and the sound is acceptable. I complain only that at forty-six minutes and change, the CD is a bit skimpy. There are many unrecorded short pieces by Weill they could have used to fill out the disc. Still, kudos for a fine recording of a rarity, even to Kurt Weill fans like me.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz