Kurt Weil – Down In The Valley – Original NBC-TV Cast – 1950 – RCA-Victor album LM-16 –
A 29 minute dose of 20th century American Folk-Drama as envisioned by a razor-sharp German Expressionist. Kurt Weil, who gained world-wide recognition with Three-Penny Opera produced a very healthy catalogue of work in his native Germany before escaping the Nazi onslaught and arriving in New York, came to represent a new musical movement taking place in Europe between the World Wars. In this country he easily adapted and contributed to the wave of Modernistic American composition, made largely possible with the advent of the WPA program – lending his unflinching Expressionistic eye to the landscape of Folk Americana.
Down In The Valley isn’t all about Weil – it’s also about the story and libretto by Arnold Sundgaard, which have that trademark of Exclamatory expression a lot of work from this period exhibits. Nothing lends itself to subtlety and nuance, therefore a level of high anxiety permeates much of this (and other similar) work from the period.
Originally conceived as a Radio opera in 1945 – it was shelved but resurrected in 1948 and was eventually produced as a Television Opera by NBC in 1950, from which this recording issued by RCA Victor on an early lp (LM-16) was issued.
Cut from a similar cloth as Our Town or Awake And Sing, Down In The Valley explores the hyper-realism of the Folk tradition, which can be a little unnerving at times. Everything done and presented in such an exclamatory manner lends itself to asking the proverbial question “you start off with an explosion, where do you go from there?” Hence, High-Drama. It’s an intense genre, which can lend itself to cringe-worthy preciousness, or it can have a devastating affect on the audience, drawn in by the pendulum of extremes. And I think that’s where this particular opera is successful – Weil knew how to sustain and shape suspense and emotion, peppered with melancholy and regret (Mahagonny is a prime example). In this context, it took a classic morality tale template with Verismo underpinnings and turned it into epic noir – picture James Thurber and Fritz Lang working together for a glimmer.
At any rate, Kurt Weil is primarily known now still, for Threepenny Opera. Mahagonny got a healthy revival some years back, but most of his American period Opera/Musicals have been neglected; this is certainly one of them. This 1950 recording eventually saw the light of reissue (in a manner of speaking) via iTunes as an mp3 download (which this isn’t). A clandestine version came out on CD in Europe several years ago, but that’s about it. Weil is someone who is revisited from time to time, there is always something to discover or be reminded of – Down In The Valley is a good reference point.