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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recordings Review: The Battle of Vienna: 1928

Exploring Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf. 
The stage set for the train station scene in Jonny spielt auf, 1928.
Photo from the Vienna State Opera Archives © Wiener Staatsoper.
On Dec. 6. Decca Classics' latest slate of back-catalogue opera reissues includes the important  Leipzig recording of Ernst Krenek's jazz opera Jonny spielt auf..

An Austrian of Czech descent, Krenek (1900-1991) was no jazzman. He was in fact a fiercely eclectic, modern composer whose music veered from tonality to serialism and sometimes back again in the course of a long, brilliant career. Today, he is best remembered as a music educator and for making the first attempt to edit the score of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. He is also an important, underrated composer in the 20th century whose cerebral music deserves more exposure.

A pack of Austrian Jonny cigarettes ca. 1928.
This is not an endorsement, nor is it intended

to promote the use of tobacco in any way.
Jonny (the title translates as "Jonny Plays On") was the hot opera of 1928. Krenek was inspired by the jazz revue Chocolate Babies. The opera premiered in Leipzig in 1927 and was an instant success. It is the story of a love affair between Max, an intellectual composer (Krenek himself?) and Anita, a soprano. The title character, an itinerant African-American musician (usually played by a white actor in black-face sets the world dancing after he steals Max's violin.

When Jonny-mania hit Vienna, Krenek's innovations drew the ire of that city's leading music critic, one Julius Korngold. The father of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the elder Korngold worked hard to promote the virtues of his son's more conservative (but equally brilliant) opera, Das Wunder der Heliane. But he did so by writing negatively about Krenek's opera. The effort backfired, and Heliane fizzled.

The competition between operas extended as far as the smoke shops of the Austrian capital. Ostereiche Tabakregie promoted the elegant, expensive "Heliane" cigarettes as an alternate to the cheap "Jonny" blend. Like Krenek's opera, the plebian taste proved more popular. (You can still buy Jonny cigarettes in Austria. In interest of public health, this blog does not recommend you do so.)

Krenek had a bona fide smash on his hands. Jonny crossed the pond, with the Metropolitan Opera mounting the work in 1929. The libretto was rewritten so that Jonny was no longer an African-American, but the role was played by a white actor in blackface. It ran for seven performances, and has never been revived.

The rise of Adolf Hitler led to both operas being labeled "Entarte Musik," examples of what Nazi censors called "degenerate" art, and then banned..  Jonny languished in obscurity for the next 50 years. Although it never regained a place in the repertory, it is staged occasionally, with productions in Vienna (2005) and at the Teatro Colon in Argentina in 2006. Both composers emigrated to America. Krenek became an academic and wrote an important Violin Concerto. Korngold went to Hollywood and found fame writing film scores.

The recording in question comes from the 1990s, when Decca started a program to record and preserve these specific operas that were declared "degenerate." Both Jonny and Heliane were recorded as part of that series. The jazz opera was preserved on this excellent two-CD set, featuring the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. The cast features heldentenor Tom Krause as Max, and soprano Allessandra Marc as Anita. Thanks to this reissue, you can discover Jonny for yourself.

You can learn more about Ernst Krenek and his opera at the Ernst Krenek Society.

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