Monday, October 10, 2011


National Theater
October 8

High jinks with high chairs: Briscein, Vele and Kněžíková.  

Bigger isn’t always better, especially when the subject matter is a light comedy set in a small Czech village. But the National Theater’s new production of Dvořák’s Jakobín manages to upsize the dimensions of the story and turn it into a fast-paced romp without losing any of its charm.

The sets are straight out of Gulliver's Travels, dominated by Brobdingnagian chairs, books and doors that dwarf the performers, reinforcing their roles as schoolchildren. Director Jiří Heřman opens up the production even more by dissolving the fourth wall, starting the action onstage before the music begins, putting singers and actors in the audience, even turning the conductor into a performer at one point. The overall effect is a beguiling mix of awe and intimacy, a classic child’s view of the world.

This would seem an odd choice for a politically charged story of a prodigal son returning home, and the travails he faces trying to reunite with his estranged father. Bohuš brings a wife, Julie, and two children with him. But his father, Count Vilém, thinking that Bohuš joined the Jacobin movement in Paris, has chosen a new heir – his nefarious nephew, Adolf. Meanwhile, two young lovers, Jiří and Terinka, face their own political problems as the village Burgrave, Filip, pursues Terinka. Her father, schoolmaster Benda, thinks the May-December match is a great idea, and does his best to keep Jiří and Terinka apart while preparing a choral serenade for the count.

This Jakobín, however, is not about politics. The title is crossed off (in blackboard chalk) on the program cover and replaced with Matčina píseň (Mother’s song), a key plot point that also shifts the focus to children and family, lending the production a light-hearted buoyancy and emotional warmth.

What makes all this work is the pacing. The production moves at a rapid clip – a departure for Heřman, who usually prefers slow-motion – with plenty of sight gags and peripheral action to help create the atmosphere of a happy melee. Even more impressive is the nonstop run of big production numbers, with mobs of singers and dancers wheeling around oversized props and doing some very fancy choreography with a riot of wooden chairs. Coupled with Dvořák’s vibrant, melodious music, it’s an engaging whirl of sight and sound.

Unfortunately, the staging runs out of gas in the third act. The sets have lost their novelty, making a giant chair a poor substitute for a throne. The long-awaited family reunion is a bit of a letdown; for all the finesse he shows with upbeat comedy, Heřman seems unsure how to handle an emotional climax. And while Adolf and Filip certainly deserve their comeuppance, this one is particularly unimaginative; by the final curtain, they literally have no place to go.

The music stays strong, however, under the capable baton of Tomáš Netopil. After a fine run of Mozart comedies at the Estates Theater, Netopil shows the same sure hand with Dvořák, invoking the broad range of emotions in his score without sacrificing any of its intelligence. The orchestra gives a nuanced performance throughout, with crisp solo lines, vivid colors and quick turns that punctuate the action onstage.

The Oct. 8 premiere featured all house singers in the cast, which is exactly right for a Dvořák opera. Both Roman Jánal (Bohuš) and Maria Kobielska (Julie) started out tentatively, but picked up convincing strength and volume by the final act. Kateřina Kněžíková, who has a gift for light comedy, sparkled as Terinka. Aleš Briscein (Jiří) and Vladimír Doležal (Benda) got nice hands at curtain call, but for this critic, Luděk Vele (Filip) was the most interesting male performer of the evening, wooing Terinka with just the right combination of lechery and foppishness.

And one day, the National Theater chorus will get the credit it deserves. The Kühn Children’s Choir has the spotlight in this production, scampering around the stage in school uniforms while contributing bright, spirited vocals. But the adult chorus once again turned in a fine performance that anchored the entire production. In particular, the scene in which the women dash into the classroom to warn Benda that strangers are in the village was as sharp as anything in recent memory.

This is the thirteenth production of Jakobín at the National Theater since it premiered there in February 1889, and it would have been easy to just go through the motions. Instead, Heřman and Netopil have breathed new life into it with a lively production that stays true to the material while developing fresh ideas. For an evening of light entertainment in Prague this season, you won’t do better.

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