|Bohuš (Jiří Hájek) is reunited with his father (Pavel Horáček).|
Opera is typically thought of as a sophisticated art form where only the best voices, greatest music and most elaborate productions can thrive. But in the Czech lands, its folk roots run deep, and the popularity of native operas is more often a measure of how well they capture the spirit and charm of village life.
So it’s entirely appropriate that Dvořák’s Jakobín, the third production in the Opera 2011 festival, seemed like a spirited amateur effort – even though it came from the well-respected J.K. Tyla Theater in Plzeň. The sets were simple, the voices mostly adequate, and the orchestra was only a couple notches above a local ensemble playing in a park gazebo on a Sunday afternoon. But it was all a perfect fit for a celebration of village life and values with a vague political hook.
Its French Revolution title notwithstanding, Jakobín is the story of an exiled son coming home. Most of the action takes place on a Bohemian village square and in the village schoolhouse, and much of the singing is done by dancing villagers and apple-cheeked schoolchildren. The third act opens at the castle of Count Vilém, whose returning son Bohuš has been imprisoned for alleged Jacobin sympathies. Up to then, the Count has been a distant figure – in this production, singing from an offstage box. But a tender song is enough to touch his heart, free his son, and bring a romantic subplot to a happy conclusion.
Even that whisper of politics was largely absent from this production, which devoted great energy to the ensemble pieces, cultural traditions, familial yearning (a film projection showed young Bohuš with his father and late mother) and light comedy. The dominant character was not the Count, but Filip, the Count’s aging Burgrave, who looked silly trying to court young Terinka, the schoolmaster’s daughter. It’s probably no coincidence that Jevhen Šokalo, who played the Burgrave as a clumsy fop, also had the strongest voice of the evening.
All of which went down very well with the packed house at the Estates Theater, which laughed and applauded in all the right places. The production may have lacked finesse, but it was heartfelt in a way that obviously touched the audience. And even the best opera productions don’t always hit that mark.
|Cellist Balázs Adorján.|
This being Prague, sophisticated music is fortunately never far away, as a quartet of cellists demonstrated the previous evening. Two members of the Prague Philharmonia orchestra, Balász Adorján and Teodor Brcko, were joined by two Slovak colleagues, Jozef Lupták and Andrej Gál, for the debut performance of the Shafran Quartet, named for the legendary Russian cello player Daniil Shafran.
Their programming was outstanding – four sets of three or four wildly different pieces, juxtaposed or spliced together in inventive fashion. The first set was probably the most interesting: Bach’s Wer nur den lieben Gott (BWV 642), Rodion Ščedrin’s Hamlet Ballad and Prokofiev’s Scherzo Humoristique. The Bach piece is a sacred work for organ; the Ščedrin piece was commissioned for the International Cello Congress held in Kobe, Japan, in 2005, where it was performed by a thousand cellists directed by Mstislav Rostropovich; and the Prokofiev piece was composed for four bassoons.
These translated to scoring for four cellos with varying degrees of success, which was true of the entire evening. But the audacity was admirable, and the playing was excellent. All four cellists showed sharp technical command and strong expression. Most intriguing were the sonic effects that four cellos can create, especially when they’re playing the same notes. It’s like the quartet has erected a sound chamber around itself, with its own deep internal dynamics. And far from being monotonous, the four instruments playing together gives each one a distinctive voice, something hard to achieve with a cello.
The Shafran Quartet will likely not appear again soon. As Adorján noted afterward, there are a very limited number of compositions for four cellos (thus the stretch to other works), and the split locations of the players (two live in Prague, two in Bratislava) create some daunting “logistical problems.” But their Monday concert was a bracing reminder of what adventurous musicians can accomplish, and the discoveries that await in unconventional approaches to sophisticated music.