Monday, January 23, 2012


National Theater
January 14

The performers are overwhelmed by the special effects.

The new “family opera” at the National Theater, Enchantia (Čarokraj in Czech), has all the ingredients of a winner: well-established source material in Gerald Durrell’s The Talking Parcel; a brilliant production team headed by theatrical impresarios Petr and Matěj Forman; and a promising bestiary and pull-out map of Mythologia, the opera’s setting, in the program book.

But the Jan. 14 premiere was a classic case of overreaching, focused so much on form that the substance got lost in the process.

Every Forman production has a conceit. This one posits that intrepid explorers discovered a secret entrance to the enchanted realm of Mythologia under the National Theater – where, indeed, construction is currently underway – and persuaded its musically inclined inhabitants to offer a glimpse of their hidden world.

As the audience enters the theater, fantastic creatures are scattered throughout the hall. A talking parrot is holding forth in one of the loges. A huge phoenix flaps in the highest balcony. Angels with tiny wings and glowing headdresses are singing in the aisles. They slowly make their way to the stage, where other strange denizens of an underwater world are gathering beneath gargantuan, undulating plants. After the scrim rises, the magician Junketberry rolls onstage in a giant seashell to announce that the audience is privileged to witness a ritual that happens once every 50 years.

Exactly what happens after that promising start is hard to say. The ritual involves a talking book that is promptly stolen by the cockatrices, a nasty group of rooster-headed lizards who live in a spooky, Hieronymus Bosch-style house. To rescue the book, the parrot joins forces with a talking frog and Penelope, a young girl in search of her missing violin, and they sail to werewolf island to find a special plant.

After encounters with the werewolves, along with prehistoric fish, mermaids, weasels, moon calves and the occasional unicorn, the trio returns with the plant but somehow everyone winds up at the mercy of the cockatrices, whose leader declares, “Mythologia is ours!” In a nifty effect, the very curtains of the National Theater stage seem to be dissolving when the parrot flies in with a last-minute rescue, the precise nature of which still escapes this critic.

Presumably, it would help to know the source material. But even for someone familiar with it, the production is a murky affair. In many scenes, the elaborate masks make it hard to tell who is singing. The stage is kept unusually dark, adding to the effectiveness of the costumes but muddying the action. In the nonstop parade of special effects, what little narrative Enchantia has breaks down into a series of disjointed vignettes offering spectacular visuals but no coherence, making the rock ’n’ roll coda tacked onto the happy ending seem even more contrived and artificial.

What accounts for this? Clearly, the brothers Forman became so enamored of creating a phantasmagorical set and characters that they paid little attention to developing a clear storyline, perhaps assuming that everyone shares their enthusiasm and knowledge of Durrell’s book. And the libretto was created by committee – Petr Forman, Ivan Arsenjev and Radek Malý – which is almost never a good idea. The only unifying element is the original score by composer and conductor Marko Ivanović, who did a great job at the premiere leading the National Theater orchestra through some unusual musical gyrations.

The singing and acting were impossible to gauge. Most impressive were the animal imitations by the many singers and dancers, in particular the mermaids with their flapping, Monty Pythonesque fish tails, whose vocal trios brought to mind Wagner’s Rhinemaidens. The only hint of a personality came from the talking frog, who consistently got laughs, especially from the children in the audience.

In the end, they may be the only group that matters. Enchantia was created for Czech families looking for 90 minutes of harmless fun in the splendor of the National Theater, not cranky critics. If their reaction at the premiere was any indication, the production should do well.

Still, it’s a disappointment. Coming from anyone else, such amateurish lapses would be understandable. But the Forman brothers have shown themselves to be masters of the creative use of space on their theater boat, Tajemství. And their previous productions at the National Theater were models of sophistication and imagination. They won awards for their work with their father, Miloš Forman, on A Walk Worthwhile. And they wove a genuine spell of enchantment with their 2003 version of Philip Glass’ Beauty and the Beast. But the live horse they put onstage in that production made more sense than an entire herd of dancing moon calves.

For more on

The Forman brothers’ website (in Czech only):

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