'The Good Soldier Schweik' CD a Triumph for Chicago Opera Theater

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Byline: Bill Gowen

Hard on the heels of last week's glance in this space at Chicago Opera Theater's repertoire and artists for its 2003 and 2004 seasons, comes a major recording: "The Good Soldier Schweik."

This world-premiere recording is derived from COT's acclaimed March 2001 production of Robert Kurka's opera, whose story is set during World War I in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). Incidentally, this opera was given its professional Chicago premiere by COT in 1981, staged by Frank Galati.

This two-CD set on the Chicago-based Cedille Records label is a major coup for all concerned: Chicago Opera Theater and its enterprising general director, Brian Dickie; the artistic team, led by COT resident conductor and music adviser Alexander Platt; and perhaps most of all, for Cedille Records founder James Ginsburg and his resident genius behind the mixing console, Bill Maylone.

It's rare these days that opera companies in the United States have an opportunity to preserve important new productions on commercial recordings, but Chicago has been blessed for the second straight year. COT's "The Good Soldier Schweik" follows Lyric Opera of Chicago's recording of the world-premiere production of William Bolcom's "A View From the Bridge," which was released by New World Records in 2001.

And sales of both recordings have a chance to really take off in the months ahead, thanks to a built-in New York audience. "A View From the Bridge" will be presented by the Metropolitan Opera this coming season, while "The Good Soldier Schweik," which had its world premiere at New York City Opera in 1958, will be mounted by Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2003. Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera have collaborated on several productions, most recently John Philip Sousa's 1913 operetta "The Glass Blowers," a Glimmerglass co-production that completed its NYCO run in April. So, it's possible "The Good Soldier Schweik" will show up at NYCO sometime in the future.

"The Good Soldier Schweik," a comic opera whose plot contains more than a touch of sadness, has achieved cult status among opera buffs, dating back to its New York premiere in 1958 and stagings at Germany's famous Komische Opera Berlin and Dresden Opera. Composed in an "episodic" style (14 scenes in two acts) "Schweik" fits right into a niche occupied by Igor Stravinsky's "L'histoire du Soldat" ("A Soldier's Tale"), Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" and Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" among mid-20th century operas.

Kurka, born in West suburban Cicero in 1921 to a Czech father and Czech-American mother, died 10 days short of his 36th birthday in New York in 1957. His death came shortly after he completed this opera, which he based on the 1920s satirical antiwar novel of the same title by the Bohemian author Jaroslav Hasek. …