Czech National Opera

Boito, Mefistofele

My favorite Italian-language opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, may not be so obscure, but nevertheless it rarely appears on stage, so despite my enthusiasm I have never actually seen it.  Until now, that is: this evening at the Czech National Opera in Prague.

The music is sublime, but I wonder if the main reason this opera does not appear often is that it’s probably difficult to pull off convincingly.  It consists of a series of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, selected by Boito to try to capture the mysticism of that huge work, but in the process leaving out much of the character development.  There is a lot to read between the lines (which are often Boito’s idiomatic translation from Goethe).

The central figure in this setting is of course not Faust, but Mephistopheles (hence Boito’s chosen name for the opera), so a performance will live or die on who fills that role.  Slovak bass-baritone Štefan Kocán had sufficient charismatic stage presence and a dark biting voice (often more bass than baritone in a welcome way).  But he did not always project sufficiently, and had to come to stage front and center to deliver many passages or else his voice would have gotten lost (and despite this, he was still inaudible during the finale, overwhelmed by the celestial chorus not only in the action – he is defeated and pelted by flowers – but also in that we just did not hear his defiance at all).

The National Theater  is not an exceptionally large house, so it should be easily within the power of singers to fill the room.  But this seemed to be a problem for most of the cast – Kocán was actually the best at projecting.  Italian conductor Marco Guidarini actually led a restrained performance, very careful not to overwhelm the singers while nevertheless still keeping the drama (that said, the restraint did come at the cost of drama in some of the larger passages, and the celestial brass chorales never shook the hall as they should at key times, the backstage brass coming across more tinny than heavenly, as if from a pre-recorded track).

Argentinian tenor Raúl Gabriel Iriarte had a weakish-voiced but idiomatic Faust.  This role does not require a fully dramatic tenor, so the somewhat more lyrical approach worked.  I just would have appreciated a larger sound.  As Gretchen, the expressive Alžbĕta Poláčková (from the Czech National Opera’s house team) did mostly manage to project, and was clearly a hometown favorite.  The rest of the cast was mostly adequate.

Of course, pulling singers to the front of the stage to help them project more had as a drawback that it removed them from the effective action on stage.  In this case, I suppose that was OK – as the action on stage distracted from the plot.  This opera, as a series of scenes not always clearly related for those who have not read the original Goethe saga, could support numerous interpretations.  This one, by Ivan Krejči, was not one of them.  Static when the libretto called for action (the witches’ sabbath, for example) it was otherwise active with lots of strange choreography (including by dancing human hors-d’oevres at a banquet that does not appear in the plot).  I think Krejči tried too hard to make this a psychodrama and to give us visions, but if he did want that approach he should have related those visions to something in the text.



Czech National Opera, Estates Theater

Mozart, Don Giovanni

I could not pass up an opportunity to see Mozart’Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theater, where the opera had its premiere in 1787. It’s a nice little theater, and the Czech National Opera has used it in recent decades as an alternative venue, as this afternoon.

The very small orchestra pit meant that the poor orchestra got packed in (the trombones having to sit in the corridor where the conductor entered). But under the baton of Jan Chalupecký, they made a full sound, always sufficiently grand but never overwhelming the singers. In fact, Chalupecký ensured this was the singers’ production.

Aleš Jenis played a svelte and seductive Don Giovanni to head the cast. Although she missed a few notes, Jana Šrejma Kačírková, as Donna Anna, also provided a spirited performance, growing in her passionate hatred of Giovanni throughout.  Jaroslav Březina, as Don Ottavio, had a nice tenor that I would have liked to hear more of, however I do have questions about his staying power if we had heard more of him (which may be why they seem to have deleted one of Don Ottavio’s signature arie, “Dalla sua pace…”).  Jan Martiník also deserved a mention as Don Giovanni’s comic sidekick Leporello.

Where this production failed completely, however, was in its staging. It was directed by two young men, the Slovak Martin Kukučka and the Czech Lukáš Trpišovský, who apparently always work in tandem, also apparently with not a single good idea between the two of them. The production started off minimalist, the characters wearing timeless outfits, and using roses painted black (sometimes the red was still visible underneath) as a stylistic link in different capacities from scene to scene (not sure what the meaning was, exactly, but they were not hurting anything). All of this would have been fine, but then they decided to start ignoring the plot, with a lot going on that did not match the words coming out of the libretto. That’s not fine. They made cuts (including, as noted, “Dalla sua pace”), which I thought may have been down to wanting to stage the production in the version in which it had its premiere (“Dalla sua pace” was added later in Vienna), but they were not consistent with this, so the cuts seem to have been made for other reasons, sometimes losing the dramatic flow (for example, Leporello getting discovered disguised as the Don and having to explain his own role to his accusers – cut).

Perhaps the strangest plot twist was the addition of theater-style seats on the stage (starting with two but more being added throughout the performance). This permitted characters to sit on stage and watch scenes they were not in. The Commendatore (particularly after his death) did this a lot, and while wandering around stage he also bumped into Don Giovanni several times throughout, causing the Don more frights. But most characters did this. I had assumed that the idea derived from the original Prague performance which had been done (according to 18th-century conventions) as a morality play – not just the (fictional) story of Don Juan Tenorio, but a lesson for the viewers of the consequences of this behavior. This began to make sense during the banquet scene (which, in this strange staging, was completely missing a banquet, incidentally), when most of the characters and chorus took their places on theater seats to watch how it would all turn out. They added a child, dressed like Don Giovanni including the distinctive hair style, to this scene (he got a bowl of snacks – so at least someone was eating). The Commendatore shook hands not with Giovanni but with the child, who then went upstairs to his bedroom (which appeared in the back of the stage). After condemning Giovanni to hell, the Commendatore joined the child in the bedroom (creepy).

Then they cut out the final scene completely. I do not like the final scene, and indeed find the opera comes to a better dramatic conclusion with the final scene omitted, but in this case they had removed all of the drama from the banquet scene and were treating the opera as a morality play, so the final scene – where six characters sing of the moral of the story – would have been completely appropriate with this staging. The one thing I thought I understood about this staging I clearly did not. Bad staging. Bad.

Czech National Opera

Janáček, From the House of the Dead

The Czech National Opera performed Janáček’From the House of the Dead at the Czech National Theater this evening. Or at least the singers and orchestra did. I do not know what opera the stage director decided to stage at the same time.  Daniel Špinar’s biography does not indicate any connection to Germany – he is Czech and studied in Prague, but nevertheless managed to put German-style nonsense on stage, devoid of connection to the plot.

Janáček’s opera is difficult even under the best of circumstances. It is meant to be a dark psychodrama, without a lot of first-hand action (although there can be some visual reenacting of the plot descriptions sung by successive characters). Loosely based on Dostoyevsky, it takes place in a bleak prison in Omsk, Siberia. If left alone, the little action that does take place can simply allow thoughtful performers to use their lines to create images; however, there also remains room for intelligent direction.

On the musical side, the performers acquitted themselves as best they could under the circumstances. The orchestra sometimes sounded a bit thin, but conductor Robert Jindra kept the pace and shape. A cast composed of repertory singers had no standouts, and since there really is no lead character in this opera this was fine. They certainly did not disappoint. However, the staging proved too distracting to allow the cast to give full portrayals.

The action moved to what looked like a broken-down music school in Soviet times (at least the prison guards were wearing Soviet uniforms, otherwise who knows?). During the overture, the prisoners came on stage in front of the scrim wearing white tie. As they started to mimic the conductor in front of the orchestra, an officer forced them to take prisoners numbers and have mug shots, before sending them each off dejected. When the curtain opened for the first two acts, they were in prison uniforms in the practice room, a smashed piano on the floor and music stands everwhere. In Act One, they all carried brooms; in Act Two, they had trash bags. The walls were grungy, the floor tiles were ripped up, and there was a lot of homosexual sex going on. A lot (yes, I get it, it is a prison, but is this really necessary?). When the plot called for the prisoners to tend to an eagle who had broken a wing and been adopted by them, they started fawning over the ruined piano. Periodically they gathered the music stands together and performed on their brooms or other objects.

When the curtain came up in Act Three, someone had repaired the piano, the floor, and the walls, and all the prisoners wore white tie again. A mostly-naked female dancer came on stage (representing a character in the story being told by one prisoner) and contorted herself uncomfortably all over the floor and literally climbed the walls. Why?, we may never know. When the story line called for the eagle, nursed back to health, being set free by the prisoners, a miniature upside-down piano flew off the top of the stage. (If the director wanted to represent the eagle, why not have an eagle instead of a upside-down flying miniature piano? The eagle is right there in the plot!) In all, the director thought he was clever by staging some other opera tonight to represent the one on the program, but it would be much more clever to actually stage the opera on the program.

I bought a ticket because I had wanted to see this rarely-performed opera. I still haven’t seen it.