This 1st recording of Robert Kurka's "The Good Soldier Schweik" (premiered in 1958 by New York City Opera) should win new fans for the piece, both for the attractions of its wonderfully quirky score & for the strong performance it receives here. An opera with a big "underground" reputation, it surely deserved to be committed to disc just as much as the other works that City Opera recorded back in the late 1950s & early 60s, e.g. Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," Marc Blitzstein's "Regina" & Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Instead we had to make do with a "pirate" tape in dim sound.
Now we have this bright, sharp version, with outstanding instrumental work under Alexander Platt's energetic leadership & a strong ensemble cast made up largely of young singers, some just out of professional apprentice programs, along with a helpful sprinkling of more seasoned performers -- baritone Marc Embree outstanding in 3 roles. As Schweik, tenor Jason Collins negotiates Kurka's sometimes awkward tessitura (very high/very low) with great skill, & holds center stage gracefully. Only reservation: too few female voices for the 2 mixed chorus numbers in Act II.
Despite a long list of its musical influences - Milhaud, Weill, Stravinsky, Czech folk music, Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, etc. - "Schweik" impresses as one-of-a-kind: the orchestral writing wonderful (wind band, no strings), the vocal less consistently assured - but Kurka might have made adjustments had he lived long enough to hear the piece on stage. Lewis Allan's libretto works fairly well, though compared to the novel it's a bit too genteel, and the level of verbal wit & skill is variable, no match for Blitzstein or John Latouche at their best. In the end, however, an opera stands or falls on the merits of its music, & "Schweik" definitely stands.