Opera: The Jacobin; Orfeo Ed Euridice

By Hugo, Shirley | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Opera: The Jacobin; Orfeo Ed Euridice


Hugo, Shirley, The Spectator


The Jacobin; Orfeo ed Euridice

Buxton Festival

Dvorak's The Jacobin and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice , the two operas that opened this year's Buxton Festival, are both relative rarities today, but their creators' fortunes tell an interesting story. Dvorak's operas -- or at least Rusalka -- joined the repertoire around the same time, during the 1980s, that Gluck's arguably starting slipping from the stage, to the extent that now means the UK's main companies are all but ignoring the composer's 300th anniversary this year.

Both works, in their different ways, also explore the power of music. Orpheus is the archetypal musician in art, whose power as singer enabled him to bring back Eurydice from death -- temporarily in the original myth, permanently in the double-reprieve, Enlightenment-friendly happy ending concocted by Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi. In The Jacobin , Dvorak's eighth opera of 11, virtually everyone is a singer: it's a piece that seems to me a little like an unruly Bohemian Meistersinger .

But the loosely political and the broadly picturesque are haphazardly assembled in Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova's libretto, which has the additional problem of having too many characters featuring in too many plots -- all of which drift unpredictably in and out of focus. It's full of people singing songs and culminates in the Count (absent through virtually all of the first two acts) being reconciled to his estranged son, the Jacobin of the title, after hearing once more the lullaby his dead wife used to sing. There's also Terinka, daughter of Benda, the fussy but good-hearted music master. He wants her to marry an old bumbling local bureaucrat, Filip; she fancies the gamekeeper Jiri.

It's a bit of a hotchpotch, and the loose ends get tied up too hastily in the final minutes. But the folk-tinged music is unfailingly, life-enhancingly tuneful, humane and witty. And Stephen Unwin's production thankfully avoids mere period-costume quaintness. He also, thankfully, knows not to come on too strong in his updating to the 1930s, despite the fact that Adolf (the Count's evil nephew) now has hints of his famous namesake, while a Stalin-like Filip represents political oppression from the East. That might not sound promising, but it successfully allows greater focus in terms of characterisation, increases the tensions of the plot and gives a melancholy tinge to the Czech national pride that seeps through the work. In Jonathan Fensom's economical design -- minimal props on an autumn-coloured square panel centre stage, brooding skyscapes shifting behind -- it looks austere, but the opera's moments of uncomplicated pleasure seem all the more joyous in the context (Act 2's chaotic rehearsal for Benda's new cantata is a delight). …

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