|Drugs at this apothecary do more than cure headaches.|
The glorious mess that swirled around the revolving stage at the Hybernia Theater on Monday night was a Czech classic, an earthy contemporary take on an 18th-century opera buffa. Though it was presented as the penultimate offering in the Opera 2011 festival, it would have been more accurately billed as a theater piece based on Joseph Haydn’s Lo Speziale (Lékárník in Czech, The Apothecary in English).
The opera is a frothy romantic comedy about the wooing of Grilletta, a young woman in the care of Sempronio, the aging owner of an Italian apothecary. He is competing with Mengone, his shop assistant, and Volpino, a wealthy customer, for her affections. Grilletta favors Mengone, but needs three acts of flirting, cajoling and manipulating – all set to incredibly beautiful music – to get the clumsy young clerk to the altar.
The National Theater Brno’s production moves the setting to a contemporary lékárník, with a very clever giant Ibuprofen package as a backdrop. The mischief that unfolds in the shop is also strikingly modern: drug abuse, sex on the floor, even an implied spanking. Adding to the contemporary gloss, a series of Czech subtitles provides not a literal translation but a running commentary on the action, with references to pop culture icons such as the Internet, marijuana, Tiger Woods and “Affleck and Lopez.” At one stormy point, the words disappear entirely and the screen shows a series of lightning bolts.
Worse for non-natives, the opera is given a Czech wrapper. It opens at a Czech train station, where Grilletta, recast as a Bohemian naif, departs for Italy. After she arrives, she sets up a suitcase and a teddy bear at the front of the stage, which she returns to periodically for extended Czech-language monologues. These got the only laughs of the evening, suggesting that more than the setting of the original opera was lost in translation.
The production has inspired moments. In the first act, prompted by Mengone, Volpino pops some pills and begins to hallucinate, seeing customers with giant heads. He then drifts into an extended dream sequence in which Grilletta is kidnapped and he goes to her rescue, a surreal ballet that is great fun to watch – once you figure out what’s happening. Like much of the extraneous action constantly bustling around the singers, it can be more confusing than entertaining, especially with the stage itself spinning in circles most of the night.
Good voices might have saved this, or at least made it respectable. But the singers were so weak that Ondrej Šaling (Mengone) had to sing-speak his way through one aria rather than sing it outright, because he obviously couldn’t hit the high notes. The women were better. Soprano Tereza Merklová Kyzlinková turned in some sweet, lilting passages as Grilletta, and mezzo-soprano Andrea Priechodská brought a honey voice and smart acting chops to the trouser role of Volpino.
Under the baton of Ondrej Olos, the music was flat, which was a shame. Played on its own by a better ensemble, the enchanting score for Lo Speziale would stand with almost anything Haydn wrote during his formative years in the Esterházy court. But the music takes a back seat in this production – deliberately, it seems, to keep the focus primarily on the sex and drug shenanigans and whirling, high-gloss set.
As a stage production, Lo Speziale is bursting with energy and imagination, and apparently no small amount of Czech wit. All of which makes it a poor fit with a light period comedy buoyed by radiant classical music. Separately, the production and the opera have their own beguiling strengths and charms. Together, they’re like a train wreck, a spectacular and mesmerizing collision of wildly conflicting elements that generates a lot of flash and dazzle before ultimately collapsing under its own weight.
For a look at Lékárník: http://www.ndbrno.cz/opera/lekarnik-en?highlightWords=Lékárník