OPERA / from Dream to Reality: Hans Krasa Belonged to a Generation of Composers Who Lost Their Lives in the Nazi Concentration Camps. in Prague, Where Krasa Began His Opera Career, They Are Coming to Terms with His, and Their, Past. Simon Broughton Reports
Broughton, Simon, The Independent (London, England)
It's rare that the story behind an opera is more unlikely than its plot, but Hans Krasa's Verlobung im Traum (Betrothal in a Dream) earns the distinction.
It was premiered (conducted by George Szell, no less) in Prague in 1933. It was also given a live broadcast on the radio and earned the 33-year-old composer a Czechoslovak State Prize. Krasa's output was small, but he was gaining a reputation, more abroad than in Czechoslovakia (Koussevitsky premiered his Symphony in Boston in 1926). One French critic, in an outpouring of praise, rated Krasa alongside Bartok, Schoenberg and Webern.
With the Nazi occupation, Krasa, like most Czech Jews, was sent to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto. There he continued to compose until, in October 1944, he was transported, with many other musicians and composers, to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers.
Meanwhile, following its premiere at the Neues Deutsches Theater (the theatre for German, as opposed to Czech, opera) in Prague, the score for Betrothal in a Dream had been returned to its publishers, Universal Edition, in Vienna. It thus escaped destruction when nationalist Czech guards raided the German Theatre and burnt hundreds of manuscripts from its library after liberation in 1945.
Exactly what happened to it after that isn't clear. Krasa's name was removed at one point - presumably because he was Jewish - and then reinstated. Universal, meanwhile, stonewalled all enquiries until, through sheer dogged persistence it seems, the conductor Israel Yinon finally succeeded in extracting the parts from them, presenting the work's post-war premiere in Prague at the end of last month.
It's an energy-packed score, driven by complicated rhythmic changes and wide-ranging vocal lines. The restlessness and vigour of Janacek are there, but diffused by more cosmopolitan influences from Vienna and Paris. For Yinon, who edited his own performing version (and even opened out some of the original cuts), the music speaks strongly: 'When people hear this music, they have to relate it to composers they know - so they talk about Janacek, Schoenberg, Weill or whoever. But I know all the music of Krasa very well and there's always this sudden shifting of rhythmic elements, fragments of melody, changes of mood and a grotesque or satirical character. This is his personal signature in the music.'
Based on Dostoyevsky's short story, My Uncle's Dream, Krasa's opera offers a satirical portrayal of a provincial Russian mother trying to marry off her daughter to a passing aristocrat. Having got the old man drunk, they successfully pressurise him into proposing before, after various further intrigues, the whole thing is explained away as a dream.
Krasa's music powers the story along with a rhythmic energy and almost cinematic intercutting of moods. The orchestration is brilliantly conceived, at times delicate, at others robust - lurching from schmaltzy dance fragments on the strings and crooning saxophones to vigorous and dramatic music from the brass. Yinon does a fine job holding it all together and keeping the singers audible. The orchestra tackles the difficult score with real bravado and, amongst a mixed cast, the mother and daughter, Antonie Denygrova and Anda-Louise Bogza, really stand out.
Chief instigator of this revival was Pavel Eckstein, the octogenarian dramaturg at the State Opera, who saw the piece at its 1933 premiere: 'I can't pretend that I remember very much,' he admits, 'but I do remember that the music was very vivid and made an impression because of its eclectic mix of styles. …