Thursday, July 7, 2011


Ledebour Garden
Through October 3

The hats are higher than the voices in Endymio.

Its all about atmosphere at Ledebour Garden, where the new Prague Baroque Festival is taking wing this summer. A sumptuous sala terrena on the sculptured grounds is hosting six Baroque operas playing in rotation every night through October 3. To call this a Herculean task is no exaggeration – in fact, a statue of Hercules clubbing Cerberus overlooks the performance space. And subduing the three-headed guardian of the gates of hell might prove easier than mastering this ambitious undertaking.

The man behind it is Tomáš Klíma, perhaps best-known as one of the founders of Palác Akropolis, the sprawling rock club in Žižkov. As Klíma tells the story, he and two well-connected friends were talking over beers in a pub about a year ago when they decided that what Prague really needs is a summer Baroque opera fest. Bingo on the timing – it’s no secret that all the best music deserts the city when the tourist crowds are heaviest. And Klíma, who readily admits that he has no expertise in Baroque music, was able to enlist two people who do: Tomáš Hanzlík, the artistic director of Ensemble Damian, and Ondřej Macek, who runs the period music group Hof-Musici.

Though both men have mounted Baroque opera productions before, they are not the top-of-the-line Baroque specialists in Prague; those slots are held by Collegium 1704, Collegium Marianum and Musica Florea. But as a practical matter, they were available for three-month gigs – and, Klíma confides, “It doesn’t take a fortune to pay them.”

Though all of the operas originate in the Baroque era, much of the music does not. Along with being bandleaders, Hanzlík and Macek are researchers who spend time in dusty archives unearthing lost or forgotten manuscripts. In 2008 Macek and Hof-Musici resurrected Argippo, a Vivaldi opera that premiered in Prague in 1730. The libretto survived but the music was thought lost until Macek found about two-thirds of it in a private archive in Germany. He filled in the rest using music from other contemporaneous Vivaldi operas.

For this festival he has performed a similar feat with L’Unione della Pace, e di Marte (The union of Peace and Mars), a 1727 Vivaldi serenata lacking music until Macek noticed that arias from other Vivaldi operas fit the text for L’Unione. Surmising that the composer was pressed for time and borrowed from his own work, Macek cobbled together another reconstruction.

Four of the other five operas were out of the same mold – extant libretto, but no score – so Hanzlík went ahead and composed the music himself, sometimes in collaboration with Czech musicologist and composer Vít Zouhar, who wrote all the music for Coronide. Hanzlík also doubles as the stage director for Endymio, Torso, Yta Innocens and Coronide.

The final opera, Facetum Musicum (Musical Joke), is a pastiche from 1738, when it was a common practice to lift arias from popular Italian operas and string them together with a bit of original recitative. The unknown author of this work borrowed from Vivaldi, Lotti, Händel and other composers who have not yet been identified.

The results are mixed, based on the two productions this critic has seen.

Endymio is noteworthy mostly for the outrageous headgear the singers wear – the title character’s hat is almost taller than he is. There are two solid voices in the cast (Jan Mikušek and Markéta Večeřová); otherwise, it’s a collection of actors who can sing. The music veers between Baroque and modern, at times sounding more like Philip Glass than Antonio Vivaldi. And Ensemble Damian seems bored, playing without any color or dynamics, and sometimes just flat-out playing the wrong notes. The only real energy comes from a small chorus.

L’Unione is better, with three singers who offer almost no interpretation but have lovely voices. They don’t get to do much other than sit in chairs and take turns singing, but since the music is authentic Vivaldi, it’s not a problem. And Hof-Musici is good, even as a reduced five-person ensemble playing with Macek leading from the harpsichord.

For all their weaknesses, the productions have a great deal of charm. The performers are in whiteface and elaborate, colorful costumes that steal the show. They move in an affected Baroque manner that may seem robotic to modern sensibilities, but adds a beguiling layer of artifice. And the setting is seductive, a romantic formal garden with ornate balustrades and staircases just below the Castle walls that takes on magical qualities as twilight deepens and the performance is bathed in the soft glow of the footlights.

This is typically tourist fare, and Klíma and his staff are making a heavy pitch for the tourist trade. But even locals used to a better caliber of music will find an evening in Ledebour Garden enchanting, albeit at a steep price. Klíma cites Shakespeare at the Castle as the model for what he would like his festival to become, and that packs the Burgrave’s Courtyard every summer with ham-fisted versions of the Bard performed in Czech. There’s no reason the Prague Baroque Festival can’t do the same, with a much better product.

For more on the Prague Baroque Festival, including a complete schedule:

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