Magazine article The Spectator

Sense of Discovery

Magazine article The Spectator

Sense of Discovery

Article excerpt

It is not often in Great Britain that we can go to three of the staples of Czech opera on consecutive evenings - and none of them by Janacek. Edinburgh's festive offerings ended with what Smetana regarded as his two operatic masterpieces, and the next evening the ENO's season opened with a revival of one of its longest-lasting successes, Dvorak's Rusalka, in David Pountney's psychoanalytic production.

He was the producer, too, of Scottish Opera's Dalibor, working with Ralph Koltai as set designer. They seemed to have no special fix on the work, apart from stressing what is obvious, that the power of music lies at its core. The stage was full of string motifs, with an actual harp at the centre point, in the middle of a coffin-shaped ramp which moved and tilted vertiginously.

From time to time further ramps with tubular chairs attached appeared from each of the wings, one for idiotically dressed judges to sit on and make their fatuous judgments, the other for the King, a figure all too reminiscent of Lohengrin, as indeed is a good deal of the music and action of the opening scene. Still, though the production had no strong character, it rarely obtruded. It did send up an army by getting them to do aerobics, though that piece of nonsense would have been more appropriate in I Masnadieri. Otherwise this wonderfully idealistic piece went unimpeded on its way, providing almost continuous pleasure and even elevation.

No one could claim that it is expertly crafted; both the music and the action have a feeling almost of improvisation, if not bewilderment about them. Loose ends dangle everywhere you look or listen, yet there is a marvellous sense of discovery about it, and Smetana reveals himself as a specialist in music of approaching ecstasy. It seems to be part of his gift, or maybe part of his way of viewing the world, that his characters relate much more intensely to figures they encounter in visions or dreams than in actuality - perhaps another legacy of Lohengrin. Hence Dalibor himself, who roundly declares early on that the love of women has never meant much to him compared with the joy of male comradeship, is obsessed with his beheaded violin-playing friend Zdenek, whose ghost, usually fiddling ardently, was almost ubiquitous in this production. Smetana manages to raise the emotional temperature far higher with Dalibor's vision of his friend than he does when he has a love duet with Milada, the woman who disguises herself as a man to save him, bearing him a violin for his own use in prison, with the elderly senior gaoler's permission. Shades of other, greater operas do both make this one seem quaint and yet fail to diminish it, as a hymn to ardour and extravagant feeling. Smetana seems bent on his characters achieving states of exaltation which are independent of what their true situation is, and operatic fustian of a serviceable kind is enough to link the great passages together. This performance was delivered with exhilarating panache by Scottish Opera, with Richard Armstrong unleashing huge waves of orchestral sounds which the singers took as challenges, triumphantly met. The Milada of Kathleen Broderick was notably powerful, both vocally and as a dramatic presence. Probably Dalibor doesn't have much dramatic presence anyway, but Leo Marian Vodicka put everything into his singing, with electrifying results. …

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