Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
SETTING: A Czech town sometime between the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, (1795-1803). Bohush is the liberal son of a Czech count, thought to have turned super radical Jacobean in Paris because of his wicked cousin Adolf filling the old count with lies about his son’s participation in the French Revolution in order to take his inheritance from him. The b-plot, which actually occupies most of the first two acts, concerns the romantic complications of Terinka (the daughter of the local schoolmaster-composer Benda) who loves the games-keeper Jiri but is pursued against her will by the Burgrave, Filip.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A large square in a small country town. (47 minutes)
0: The opening sequence *** starts off with one of the most striking orchestral introductions, a bewitching dancing tune followed by a choral prayer to the Virgin Mary and then Bohush’s thoughts about Czech singing and then his wife Julie’s comments about how she sings such songs to their children.
5: Suddenly, we enter a Wagnerian recitative ** as Bohush and Julie go on for some time and turns eventually into a wandering duet which ends well. The churchgoers come out and the plot starts to unfold to high drama passages from the orchestra.
9: The sotto voce choral sequence ***, tenors (youths), basses (townsmen), sopranos (girls), altos (women) take turns. The youths and girls are ready to party but the older people bring in a little order while not also being party poop-ers.
13: A parody-18th century tune brings on the Burgrave (Filip) and Benda (also his daughter Terinka and her beloved Jiri, a games-keeper who Filip threatens to have conscripted to the army), and they plan out the festivities (including a choral piece written by Benda who is both the schoolmaster and the town composer apparently). A grand ensemble ** in which Filip, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with Terinka, says that he will sing Benda’s cantata.
18, 21: Now something both bizarre and rather amazing. A multi-part choral ensemble ***. At first the male townsfolk taunt Jiri because his girl is being courted by the Burgrave. This is great in itself but as Terinka rushes on with Filip in chase Jiri decides to infuriate the older man (and Terinka) with one of the most bewitching tenor arias *** which remains nevertheless an ensemble number as Jiri equates the Burgrave with a green suited parrot. It has everything, the prima donna crying out desperately in torment for it all to stop, the chorus and orchestra dancing along with the tenor as they all torment the primo basso. The first time I heard it I thought act 1 was over.
25: But no, the act is certainly not over, in fact it has only began! Filip counter attacks with a dark aria * which ends up taking on a lot from the previous number as well as choral participation.
29, 35, 37: This is followed by the somewhat inevitable Terinka-Jiri love duet **. Very romantic, they are eventually interrupted by Filip making another attempt on winning over Terinka turning things over to a bustling but glowing trio *** and then a glorious quintet as Bohush and Julie come on introducing themselves as music artists from Paris ***. Filip is worried about Jacobean influence coming to the town, which Bohush and Julie ironically laugh off.
42: The townspeople rush in in anticipation of the arrival of the Count. Their chorus of honour is very tuneful *** as the soloist characters react to the arrival of Bohush’s father and his cousin Adolf, who is declared his successor.
ACT 2: The Schoolhouse, a large-scale rehearsal in progress. (56 minutes)
0: The act opens with references to the cantata that will be performed later, in an entr’acte *.
3: Benda tries to bring his singers to order and congratulates himself on his grand cantata *.
6, 9, 12: The cantata ** starts with a melody started by children, then tenors and basses. It’s the sort of thing that would not be odd at a circus or It’s a Small World. Terinka and Jiri engage in a Baroque duet **. It starts to turn into mashed potatoes as the chorus pops back into gear and it gloriously comes to an end but Benda loves it. Terinka brings it into a second inning, followed by more mad flourishing and crashes **. Although Benda compares himself to Mozart, the cantata better resembles Rossini or even early Verdi, especially that ending! Although not amazing, it is incredibly enjoyable.
13: Terinka’s aria ** in which she prays to the Almighty to give her relief from Filip and that Jiri’s eyes are like live coals that burn into her soul. She confesses her love for him and he (having overheard everything) decides that he will stay with her forever
17: The second Terinka-Jiri duet ** is mostly a half-heart attempt by Terinka to dissuade her beloved.
21: Benda catches them * and they try to pretend they have been signing a proper duet (as in a hymn) but they are caught with the scores of Ave Maria and Te Deum, but for alto and bass! The trio takes on a rehash of the cantata.
28, 30, 32: A chorus of girls comes in and alerts Benda that the Frenchies at the door are Jacobeans! Shock-horror ensues as Julie and Bohush enter the schoolhouse and Benda insults their Czech street-cred by asking if they can sing, prompting both Bohush and Julie into a series of lovely short arias **. After these declarations of passionate love for Czech music culture, Benda apologizes and Terinka and Jiri lead the chorus in a solemn love-feast for Czech singing **.
34, 40: Filip arrives to court Terinka *. Jiri is enraged but Benda warns him that angering his rival could cost him his life. A very dramatic scene as Terinka compares herself to Filip’s “rosebud” (his favoured word of endearment for her “rozmila”) which she declares will die for him. It improves ** as Benda becomes terrified by Filip’s threats upon Jiri (tenors, after all, are very, very rare and fragile creatures). But Benda tells him that the only male solo is for a tenor, which both Benda and Jiri are but Filip is a bass. The low one retorts that he will sing tenor (in the lowest voice possible). Filip thinks that Benda is saying that his voice is bad, which isn’t the case of course, but he is saying that Filip is unable to sing tenor because, frankly, it is just too high and Filip has gone through more biological changes than Jiri or Benda (both are tenors after all). The libretto goes into a lot of details about how tenors and basses are very different from one another and how delicate tenors are, sort of like china.
44, 49, 51, 53: The arrival of Adolf brings on the events of the act finale *. At first the problem is Filip’s attempt at drafting Jiri into the army in order to get rid of him as a rival for Terinka. Adolf apparently is going along with this but Bohush decides to back Jiri’s claims that Filip is lying about the whole situation, which is actually the truth. It gets better as Bohush reveals who he is to Adolf and curses him **. The opera takes on a Mozartean quality (if it hasn’t several times already), in the interaction **. The last ninety seconds of the act come crashing down on everyone and everything as Bohush is arrested by Adolf and taken to the castle prison ***.
ACT 3: A hall in the castle. (52 minutes)
0, 7, 13: The act opens with Jiri’s furious attempt to speak to the Count *. He is stopped by Adolf who orders his musketeers on the young tenor. A long and windingly ornery sequence leads to the Keykeeper (a contralto!) allowing Julie and Benda into the castle. Benda’s interview with the Count does not go well for him * but the Count himself does get some good emoting time **.
20, 23, 26: Benda declares his defeat to Julie, who decides to take matters into her own hands because, well, this is a Czech opera after all, and in Czech operas women are strong, like Xenia warrior Princess strong! She does this through song, (what else?) a lullaby ** that Bohush taught her which his deceased mother used to sing to him when he was a child. It is followed by the Julie-Count duet * in which she proves that Bohush was not a Jacobean because he was a Girondist sentenced to be executed (this is from a Paris newspaper, seriously the whole thing is explained using a newspaper article, this is a first for opera certainly!). Julie’s impassioned plea to the Count ** (in which she actually humbles herself by admitting that she is only his daughter-in-law, not his daughter, and so can only beg him to take back his son) leads to him finally taking concern in his son’s imprisonment.
28: With the plot mostly finished, the beginning of the celebrations starts with children’s chorusing and orchestral bombast and trumpet fanfare **.
34, 38: Benda returns asking if his cantata might be performed, the Count orders that he hand over power to his heir first, Adolf thinking he is about to hit the jackpot but the Count orders him out of his sight for his lying about his son. Bohush is brought in and the Count embraces his son **. A grand ensemble develops with Terinka, Jiri, and Filip coming in and Bohush asks that Terinka and Jiri be given the Count’s blessing to marry **. Everyone is happy, except the Burgrave.
43: A Minuet *. Seriously, I’m not making this up!
46, 48: A Polka *, which turns into a choral number ** (adults and children) ends the opera.
Although I do not love this opera as much as I do Dimitrij, there are moments in the score which are just psychotically good! If Dimitrij was Dvorak’s Tristan, this was his Meistersinger, certainly in terms of musical style. There are strong similarities between the two operas, their usage of Slavic idioms (Polish/Russian or Czech) as well as even some musical quotations from the earlier opera here, and the libretto (also by Maria Cervinkova-Riegrova) shares phrases and entire sentences with that of Dimitri. But just as Meistersinger is a comedy, so is this, thus Dvorak’s tragic musical language in Dimitri has been transformed by pseudo-18th and early-19th century diatonics. The first act is by far the better of the three, although both of the later acts have their good moments. If the third act is devoid of a strong situation apart from providing the opera with a happy resolution (and loses all dramatic cohesion by the time the ballet appears), the first two are very strong both musically, dramatically, and uniquely, comedically as well. The cantata rehearsal is very fun, and the Terinka-Jiri romance is able to sustain interest throughout. The a-plot is a little less interesting, and never very compelling (after all, it is solved by a newspaper clipping, seriously?), although it does provide the opera with most of its Czech cultural context and the seemingly unimportant character of Julie who saves the day for all the good guys, both of which are probably the work’s crowning achievements. This is probably the “most Czech” opera ever, full of dances, choral singing, strong pro-active female characters who are unafraid to speak their minds, and a lot of Slavic charm. An alpha.