Antonín Dvořák: Čert a Káča (1899)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

This is a request by Kevin S. Pruit, and given the grim nature of the material I have otherwise been working with, this one comes as a bit of a relief. Not that all of my reviews for the next few months will be just Czech and Slovak operas, but a lot of them will be as I have recently learned that I have some Czech readers interested in the blog.

Incidentally, I will be releasing the reviews for all Smetana operas I have not already reviewed on Mondays in July. Enjoy!

Since I have reviewed four tragic operas by Dvorak, and only one other comedy, I must remind my readers that Dvorak actually wrote just as many comic works for the stage as he did grippingly tragic grand operas. This was the first major work Dvorak released following his stay in America and was the apogee of the Dvorak craze that swept Prague in the late 1890s.

SETTING: Dlouha Lhota, Bohemia, and Hell. Basically the Czech Hansel und Gretel, this is perhaps the most blatantly Wagnerian opera Dvorak ever wrote. It is also remarkable for being one of the few operas that has absolutely no romantic story line or love interest at all. The title characters are Kate (mezzo-soprano) and Marbuel (bass) who is not Satan but rather a lesser demon of the inferno who nevertheless keeps getting sent by Lucifer to complete errands. They dance, and he takes her to Hell, where she is protected by a crucifix, and proceeds to wreck havoc. Eventually she gets danced out of Hell by Jirka (tenor) a shepherd who promises her mother to bring her back (although this is hardly difficult seeing that the demons are terrified of her). The sub-plot, which really only factors in the third act, concerns a wicked slave-owning old Princess (soprano) who is about to be taken to Hell by Marbuel but is stopped by a scheme concocted by Jirka involving Kate which leads to the freeing of the serfs, Jirk becoming Prime Minister, and Kate becoming the richest woman in town.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: An inn in Dlouha Lhota. (42 minutes)

0: The overture *** is a classic of Czech symphonic music. It starts off mildly and placid, deceptively so as it quickly turns menacing. A series of leitmotifs are presented representing Kate, Marbuel, Hell, etc. which will return later in the opera.

9: There is a spirited opening dance ** followed by a tenor-bass opening chorus and the introduction of Jirka.

15: Jirka goes into a brief song about women as Kate arrives with her mum ** who then sulks as a result and a dance number strikes up for a while.

21: Dobry vecer! Kate gets out of sorts since she can’t dance with anyone which goes on for a bit before the arrival of Marbuel * who greets everyone and ends up dancing with Kate.

29: The dance **, somewhat infernal and with the chorus continuously commenting.

36: Jirka returns complaining but the first item of note here is when Marbuel reveals that he is a demon which is done to one of the most remarkable orchestral features ***. He beckons Kate to him. But he returns to the present and asks Kate if she wants to follow him to his castle. She consents and the earth swallows them up. The chorus freaks briefly before Mum shows up asking for someone to bring Kate back.

40: Jirka volunteers to a repeat of his song **.

ACT 2: Hell. (34 minutes)

0: An entracte ** as we descend into Hell.

4: The happy populous of Hell sing of their contented life in Inferno ** (with only a hint of torment in their verse). Lucifer himself arrives in recitative, a very genial ruler, looking for Manuel who he has his people check on via a telescope. The Watchman, yes, Hell apparently has a Watchman, alerts everyone that Marbuel is returning.

9: Kate and Marbuel arrive in Hell and she proceeds to torment him **.

13: Jirka arrives and is asked by Lucifer to have Kate leave as she continues to torment not just Marbuel now but all the populous of Hell **.

17: Marbuel prepares for his next mission, to bring the wicked Princess, from the town he found Kate, to Hell. Her steward is to stay on earth for the time being *.

21: Jirka and Marbuel make a deal: Jirka will get Kate out of Hell and Marbuel will pretend to want to take the Steward while on his mission to the Princess, Jirka will intervene, which will render a great reward to Jirka from the Princess **. An amusing duet.

26: The dance sequence: ending with Jirka dancing with Kate out of Hell, but first they are entertained with a series of Infernal dances **.

ACT 3: A room in the castle of the Princess (34 minutes)

0: A pleasant entracte which is apparently based on a polonaise *.

5: We finally meet this Princess everyone in Hell seems to be talking about and she embarks on a rather pleasant arioso **. She eventually engages in a dialogue with her maid.

14: Jirka is brought ** in as the man who saved the Steward, now the Princess wants him to save her. He says that he can (because he has a deal with Marbuel, but he doesn’t tell the Princess of this). He embarks on a monologue which sounds like a cross between one of the duets in Vanda and something in a Rossini opera. If he successes in saving her, the Princess promises to make him Prime Minister.

23: Kate arrives ** and startles Jirka. He tells her that she can have her own revenge on Marbuel by freaking the Hell-Fire out of him.

26: The Princess and retinue return * and Jirka puts his plan into action.

28: The Play-out ***, Marbuel arrives amid fire and fury to take the Princess to Hell but he gets scared out of his own wits by Kate and is chased out of the house by him. The Princess is so thankful that Jirka is made Prime Minister and Kate is given the largest house in the town along with all the money she wants for her lifetime.

COMMENTS:

Part of the success of The Devil and Kate is that the one operatic element Dvorak never quite got right, a love story, is totally absent from this tale (although this production decided to throw in a brief closing sequence establishing one just the same). Another is that it gave him ample opportunity both for choral and Czech dance numbers. The chorus plays a similar commentary role as in Lohengrin being more a part of the action than the soloists at times. The Hell Dvorak constructs is funny, even rather child-friendly.  Given how devoutly a Roman Catholic he was, I am surprised that he was willing to be so irreverent given the subject matter, although he does occasionally make Marbuel spooky. Overall, the music is rarely stunning it must be admitted (this is partially due to it being an experimental work). I never found myself blown away by the score, but it is nevertheless entertaining with catchy tunes from beginning to end. The plot and the primary characters are far more the interesting feature here, at least to me.

The female protagonist is a mezzo-soprano, which might be shocking at first but the lower voice allows the character a greater depth than if it were sung by a soprano. Her vocal lines also highlight the talkative nature of her personality as many of them do not have just melody but rhythm as well. Kate is also perhaps the strongest of all Czech heroines, which is already a pantheon of Amazons! Not that she is a warrior, exactly, but what other operatic heroine took on, and conquered, the forces of Hell! An Alpha.

3 thoughts on “Antonín Dvořák: Čert a Káča (1899)

  1. Splendid. Dvorak was a very versatile musician(some say close to Mozart), managing to write successful comic and tragic works – quite rare among composers.

    With regards to love music, Dvorak could do tender passion effectively but not full blown erotic passion like Wagner or Strauss. I’m just speculating, but I think it must lie with the fact he was a devout catholic and husband that eroticism escaped him which came natural to some other composers…

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    1. In answer to your question from my now deleted post of Thais, the best recording of Don Quichotte was conducted by Plasson. This is according to OperaScribe. He knows French opera far better than I do. It is the one with Van Dam and Berganza. I think Emily Bronte uploaded it to YouTube.

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      1. Thank you! Will look into that. I always felt bad not really liking Don Quichotte, regarded by some as his last great work, maybe that recording will rectify that(I hope!)

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