|The amusingly uncouth Don Pinto (Zdeněk Plech).|
One of the hallmarks of the legendary American film director D.W. Griffith was his ability to handle crowds. Which is to say, put large numbers of people onscreen in epic productions and make them seem perfectly realistic and natural without interrupting the flow of the story.
Die drei Pintos (The three Pintos), the newest production at the State Opera, is far from an epic. Itʼs a light comic opera with an unusual pedigree and strong connections to Prague. But the constant bustle of people across the stage offers a reminder that the director, Jiří Nekvasil, is also quite skilled at handling crowds – just one of many attributes that make him the best opera director working in the Czech Republic today.
Nekvasil had his eye on Die drei Pintos 10 years ago, when he was artistic director at the State Opera (he now holds that position at the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava). The music was written by two composers, both of whom have Czech ties. Carl Maria von Weber, who worked as the director of Pragueʼs Estates Theater from 1813 to 1816, started composing Die drei Pintos in 1821, but died before he could finish it. Gustav Mahler, born and raised in southern Bohemia, and director of Pragueʼs New German Theater in 1885-86, completed the score in 1887 at the urging of Weberʼs grandson Carl. Mahler personally conducted the world premiere in Leipzig in January 1888, and the Prague premiere seven months later.
For mainly bureaucratic reasons, it took a decade for Nekvasilʼs version of Die drei Pintos to reach the stage – and then, barely making it into the Mahler anniversary years with a “pre-premiere” performance on December 22, the 100th anniversary of Mahlerʼs death. But it was worth the wait. The formal premiere on Thursday provided a light-hearted eveningʼs entertainment and a worthy addition to the State Opera repertoire.
The story concerns an arranged marriage between Don Pinto de Fonseca, a country bumpkin, and Clarissa, a sophisticated Madrid maiden who wants to marry her boyfriend, Don Gomez de Freiros. Pinto and Clarissa have never met. So when Don Gaston Viratos and his servant, Ambrosio, meet Pinto and learn of the impending debacle, they decide to steal his letter of introduction and make for Madrid themselves. Intending to impersonate Pinto, Gaston has a change of heart after he meets Gomez, gives him the letter and helps the young lovers to a happy conclusion, making a fool of the real Pinto in the process.
One of the reasons Die drei Pintos is not produced more often is because it tells a story set in 17th-century Spain to German Romantic music of the 19th century. Nekvasil neatly resolves this conundrum by moving the action to a contemporary setting, opening the opera in a Spanish pub (bullfighting posters on the walls, a football game on TV) with distinct Czech overtones (roast pork and foam-caked beer glasses on the tables). While Gaston and Ambrosio lead a crowd of students celebrating the end of the school year, then realize they just drank away all their money, the pub hums with background activity – busy waiters, stumbling drunks, raucous sports fans and women queuing at the restroom.
The staging becomes even more complicated when Pinto enters, brandishing his letter of introduction on his way to Madrid, and Gaston and Ambrosio lead him through a slapstick lesson in courtship. By the time Pinto passes out and his tutors make off with his letter, the whole pub is in on the gag – a nifty bit of directing, with all the activity culminating in an amusing and enticing setup rather than getting in the way of the story, which is what usually happens when too many people are on the stage.
The flow is not quite as smooth in the second and third acts, which takes place on an eye-catching but cumbersome set. The palatial home of Clarissaʼs father, Don Pantaleone de Pacheco, is filled with oversized furniture and objets dʼart arrayed along multiple risers and steps, difficult terrain to negotiate under any circumstances. But Nekvasil deftly moves his characters to the front of the stage for their arias, and brings in the chorus from the side stairways that descend into the audience, keeping the focus where it belongs while maids, servants and other assorted extras crisscross in the background.
The characters also benefit from the fine work of Števo Capko, a local actor, choreographer and movement specialist who gives them fluency and identity. Pintoʼs slovenly behavior and pratfalls in the pub quickly establish him as unworthy of Clarissa. Ambrosio mugs his way through an early drinking song with some exaggerated gestures and dance steps that ultimately become the theme of the closing production number. And the constant parade of background figures move with an acrobatic elegance that lends the production a light, liquid quality.
The opening-night cast was uniformly good. In particular, Zděnek Plech portrayed a convincingly uncouth Pinto; Jakub Pustina added some sparkle to the secondary role of Ambrosio; Jana Horáková Levicová commanded the stage in her brief turns as Clarissaʼs maid Laura; and Jana Sibera, whose high coloratura soprano has graced many productions at the State Opera, was note-perfect as the anxious, air-headed Clarissa. The workhorse of the evening was Chinese expat WeiLong Tao, a polished singer and actor who was perhaps not quite right for the part of Gaston, as he looks like what he is – a middle-aged Asian – rather than a rambunctious young student.
The music was prepared by German conductor Heiko Mathias Förster, under whose baton it seemed not like a patchwork, but a seamless blend of frothy melodies and arias with occasional clearly identifiable Weber or Mahler elements. Förster gave the music a bright effervescence, creating the ambience of a Viennese ballroom.
Still, Nekvasil is the star of the show. He never appears onstage, but his handiwork is unmistakable in the balance and sweep of the production, which grabs the audience in its opening moments and takes them on a two-hour joyride. Particularly for an obscure German comedy, thatʼs an impressive accomplishment.
For more on the production: http://www.sop.cz/en/repertoar/tripintove.html
For more on Jiří Nekvasil: http://www.nekvasil.com/