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April 9, 2010
Review: Performance matches the original art of 'Brundibar'

By Edward Ortiz

eortiz@sacbee.com

Anyone who doubts whether music can outlast an evil moment in history should see the Sacramento Children's Chorus' winsome production of the children's opera "Brundibár."

Written in 1938 by Czech composer Hans Krasa before his incarceration in the Terezin Nazi concentration camp in World War II, this opera has survived as a joyous example of how music triumphed during the darkest of times.

3W21ELLIE.highlight.prod_affiliate.4.JPGIn this production, a combination of local forces was used. Those included the chorus members under the direction of Lynn Stevens, along with the members of the Sacramento Youth Symphony under the direction of Sacramento Opera conductor Timm Rolek.

Thursday's performance at Hiram Johnson High School's auditorium was made more powerful because Ela Weissberger (left), who was in the original cast when the opera was performed at Terezin, accepted an invitation to attend, coming to Sacramento from her home in Tappan, N.Y.

The crucial victory for this opera was when Krasa's sheet music to "Brundibár" was smuggled into the camp and performed 55 times. Krasa later perished at another camp, as did many of the children who performed it.

The hopeful, colorful music is timeless, its style closer to a Broadway musical than an opera. With many melodic leaps and chromatic moments, the opera is no slam dunk for a children's chorus. But in the solid hands of Stevens, this cast, which is divided into two casts that will alternate performances for the run, gave personality and spunk to this allegorical tale of how the oppressed take power from a tyrant.

Thursday's cast showed many strengths, none better than the dynamic and dramatically solid presence of Erin Scheller as Annette. When paired with Sam Kinunen as the Joe, the sister and brother characters formed a strong central weave to which many of the opera's short strands are attached.

In this tale, Annette and Joe must find a way to get milk for their mother by outflanking the despotic organ grinder "Brundibár." It's a tale that only works when comedy and dramatic speed are self evident.

These attributes came from many in the cast, especially Mia Claire Isaguirre in the role of the cat. For this production that proved a pivotal role, given that camp survivor Weissberger, who performed the role 55 times in Terezin, was watching from the front row. Isaguirre handled the role with vocal power and a sleek, prancing grit. Other notable performances included Karenna Pullen as the Dog and Zacharias Bahm as a pugnacious Brundibár. These, in turn, were crisply directed by Carrie Hennessey, and Rolek coaxed a solid performance from the Sacramento Youth Symphony.

The 30-minute opera, was preceded by a touching prelude of songs from and relating to the Terezin camp, with projected slides of Weissberger's drawings. These were a touching introduction that imbued the joyful music with gravitas. Some of the best choral singing of the evening was found here, especially the chorus's work on "The Butterfly" and "Ani Ma'amin." Josselyn Ivanov also provided moving moments with her singing of "On A Sunny Evening."

But there was no more poignant moment than when Weissberger ascended the stage to sing a redux of the closing number in the opera -- "The Victory Song."

This was sung in Czech by Weissberger and the cast. Afterward, Weissberger spoke from the stage about how this work gave her strength and hope. And to see the 80-year old camp survivor basking in the performance's afterglow was proof of the music's great power in influencing past and present human conditions.

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071.

'Brundibar' at a glance

When: 7:30 p.m. Tonight and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Hiram Johnson Auditorium, Hiram Johnson High School, 6879 14th Ave., Sacramento

Tickets: $15 general, $10 students

Information: (916) 454-1141 or www.sacramentochildrenschorus.org

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