Eugen Suchon: Svatopluk (1960)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.

Sort of a connector to our all-Smetana month, a more modern Slovak opera based on Moravian history!

So this is very different. Yes, this is a sort of post-Wagnerian work by an Eastern European composer (Slovakian specifically, and Suchon lived from 1908 to 1993, so a Slovak first for this blog!) about events in Moravian 9th century history. It is described in the Penguin Opera Guide briefly as a Libuše-style operatic pageant with an old-fashioned score in comparison to the other, earlier one-act opera Suchen wrote entitled The Whirlpool which was first performed in 1949. So for everyone complaining that they don’t write operas like they used to, and by that meaning the style of the late-19th century, well they did up until 1960 at least! Suchon researched ancient Slavic music and incorporated them into a score that combined the seemingly un-mixable principles of absolute music and Wagnerian music drama. This review is of the 1962 Supraphon release with Ivo Zidek as Zaboj, the minstrel who is sort of the plum role in the first and last acts of the opera. Incidentally, the fanfares from this opera are also used as the official fanfares of the President of the Slovak Republic, although the earlier Suchon opera is considered far more popular than this, and as far as I can tell the opera has only been recorded twice and has never been performed outside of the Czech or Slovak republics, although it regularly appears at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava.

UN MORCEAU d‘HISTOIRE from Historian Phil: Great Moravia is among my favourite topics to discuss so here is a little primer: Founded in 833, Moravia was the first Slavic state that was actually ruled by Slavs (although clothing styles demonstrate an Alanic or Iranian origin, thus supporting the theory that the Slavs are in some way related to the formerly West Iranic populations of Central Asia), as opposed to the 7th century Empire of Samo, who was a Frankish merchant who confederated the ancestors of the Sorbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Austrians, and Slovenes into an empire under his rule. Back to Great Moravia, it was founded by Mojmir I (who is not in the opera), who was succeeded by his brother Rastislav, whose attempts to convert the area to Byzantine Christianity were thwarted by the Franks, and in 870 he was dethroned by his nephew Svatopluk I (the title character of this opera), with German support. A succession crisis (depicted in the opera) between two of his sons following his death in 894 resulted in the gradual disintegration of the country between 901 and 907, by which date both brothers are supposed to have already died.

SETTING: Great Moravia and Pannonia, 894. The geographical setting of the opera is one of the widest ranging from the former Czechoslovakia in the north to present day Hungary, Slovenia, and even northern Serbia in the south. The plot starts off with Zaboj (tenor) a minstrel and copyist who is in love with, and spies for, Princess Lutomira of Pannonia (soprano). He gives her information about a plan to attack the Franks, which she attempts to release to her father Braslav, Prince of Pannonia, whom she wants to make king of Moravia. It is intercepted by castle guards who kill the dove she uses as a passenger pidgin. Meanwhile, Old King Svatopluk (bass) is granting joint rule to his two eldest sons Mojmir (baritone) and young Svatopluk (tenor). This does not go well when the two brothers refuse to agree on their first judgement that of the kidnapping of a slave girl named Milena (soprano) pleaded by her mother Blagota (contralto) who knows that unless the girl is rescued she will be sacrificed by the pagans. Mojmir is an advocate for Byzantine Christianity, whereas Svatopluk is allied with the pagans. Mojmir eventually rescues Milena, but is then arrested by his father under false accusations of treason by Lutomira (who now wants the throne for herself!), meanwhile Svatopluk is told by the pagan priests to murder their father so he can become king himself. There are three other characters Predslav (tenor) the third son who is a monk who shows up in act three, Zrec (bass) the pagan high priest, and most importantly Dragomir (baritone) the chamberlain and advisor to the king.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Courtyard of the castle at Velehrad. (44 minutes)

2: The prelude rises from the depths to a much frustrated sunlight and gets interrupted by the song of the singer Zaboj ***, who is in love with Lutomira, Princess of Pannonia, a guest in the castle, who plots to have Braslav, Prince of Pannonia, crowned king of Moravia. The Princess herself comes on and he warns her about a plan of King Svatopluk to station troops on the Danube and invade Frankish territory. Lutomira sends this information to Pannonia via a passenger dove.

9, 12, 16, 27: They are eventually discovered by the chamberlain Dragomir *, or orders Lutomira away as old King Svatopluk arrives to announce that he is abdicating in favour of his sons Mojmir and Svatopluk **. The two brothers could not be further apart on how they want to govern: Mojmir wants to convert the population to Byzantine Christianity via the work of Cyril and Methodius, throw out the Frankish priests, and abolish slavery, while Svatopluk (who is much more ornery and chaotic) wants the throne for himself and supports the pagan Slavs. The people arrive in a large crowd * for public audience and supplications, including a group of Roman monks who chant in unison in Latin. A poor slave woman named Blagota comes on pleading with the King to save her daughter Milena who has been kidnapped by pagans for a human sacrifice *.

30: The brothers fight both with each other and with their father *: Mojmir wants to free the girl, Svatopluk wants to appease his pagan allies. The Old King agrees with his younger son only because the pagans make good strong, and young warriors. This leads to a minor musical explosion as the King has a heart attack and the crowd is expelled from the castle.

36: Svatopluk expresses remorse over the death of his uncle Rastislav (it will later be revealed that he betrayed him twenty years earlier). He has Zaboj sing a song about the black night over the capital city ***.

42: The dove (recently deceased) is brought in and the secret plans are revealed to have almost been smuggled out of the castle which infuriates the old king  who orders that he himself will lead the attack agains the Franks **.

ACT 2: A pagan graveyard. (46 minutes).

2: A weird and slightly eery prelude continuing into a weird female chorus of pagans joj, joj-ing about as the preparations for the sacrifice are made *, a very interesting exercise in close harmony using only female (soprano and alto) voices.

4: Milena sings of her fear *. She knows what is about to happen to her: in the pagan rites, when a young warrior of noble birth dies a maiden is sacrificed at his funeral in order to be his bride in the afterlife.

8: Prepare to be scared out of your wits by what comes next: the Pagan March ***, literally it is the Wolf Glen scene meets the scariest episode of Twilight Zone with its constant zombie drum beat. The high priest is just as scary, if at least the initial tension has elapsed. The pagan women continue to sing and dance in their creepy way, although eventually the tenors and basses get in on it as well. Young Svatopluk arrives and tries to gin up support for his planned attack on Nitrava. The high priest gives a prophecy, or rather more of an order: kill your father and you will be king (this is stupid but that is what they say, so…). The young price flees.

20, 26, 29: The high priest begins the ceremonies for the ritual human sacrifice **. There is a tenor guardian of the pagan sacrifice (this is how he is listed in the cast list) who continues with the O jojs!. The pagans bomb out as anticipation for the sacrifice rises. The joj-joj comes back, this time explosively ***. Incidentally for anyone who doesn’t know joj or yoy for English speakers, is an Slavic and Magyar term for woe, identical and equivalent to the Yiddish Oy vey. There is more of this as the scene continues.

33, 40: Mojmir arrives, scatters the pagans, destroys their idols, and frees Milena ** who is later comforted by the arrival of her mother Blagota. Milena offers herself to Mojmir as his personal servant **.

44: The soldiers furiously beg Mojmir to strike against his father, but he outright refuses **. Lutomira arrives on the scene and vows to destroy Mojmir by intrigue so that she can take the throne from all of them.

ACT 3 (62 minutes).

Scene 1: Outside the royal bedchambers, Castle Velehrad. (31 minutes)

0: By far the best of the preludes ** (also the longest). The opening scene consists of a dialogue and series of monologues for Old King Svatopluk and Dragomir. Mojmir has been imprisoned by the latter and is to be judged by his father.

10: Zaboj encounters Lutomira *** and she tries to get more information out of him but he threatens to kill her if she tries to spirit anything out of the castle to her father. She tries to seduce him in order to get him back on her side.

13: Mojmir is brought in and encounters his brother, violence almost breaks out but they are stopped by their father **. The trial begins and Lutomira bears false witness against Mojmir, claiming that that letter she wrote which was found by the guards was actually written by Mojmir.

17: Milena violently protests this  ** and confides to the King that it was his name sake, not his first born, who plots to murder him, and that she overheard the plotting of the pagans to conspire with Young Svatopulk. No one believes her since she is a slave, but Dragomir takes no chances and posts more guards on the royal bedchamber. Just as Milena said, that night is a full moon and Young Svatopulk attempts to assassinate his father (a lot of this is set to a rhythmic thudding from the orchestra) but the guards get him as he is about to strike and the Old King is horrified by the truth.

Scene 2: The royal bedchambers. (31 minutes)

32: Another song from Zaboj *** as he tries to entertain the Old King. They end up debating the meaning of life.

36: Zaboj encounters Lutomira one last time ***, at first begging her to stop trying to find a way to take over the country but she will not listen. He threatens her again, but this time as she runs away from him she trips and falls to her death.

39: Old King Svatopluk comes on dreading the trial he will have to preside over against his two sons **. News is brought that Lutomira is dead. Notice how from this point on the drums symbolize the beating of the dying heart of the old king.

43: Svatopluk feels the judgement is near ***, not just for his sons but for him as well.

46: The third son, the monk Predslav, arrives *, asking his father to have mercy on his brothers. There is no need, says the father, because his own death is near and someone must rule.

49: Old King Svatopluk gives his death bed speech **. Forgiving the brothers, he takes rods and warns them that disunity will destroy both of them, but if they unite, they will be unstoppable.

54: No sooner has the Old King said his peace that the two brothers start to fight again. Young Svatopluk attempts to stab Mojmir, but gets Milena instead. He flees the room vowing to meet his brother on the battlement, and the slave girl dies after a touching if brief death monologue *. Her death is simultaneous with that of the Old King, prompting mass grief ***. Dragomir declares that Mojmir is the only king of Moravia. He can not believe how much violence and death has occurred up to this point.

60: Zaboj gets the last words: that the fate of Great Moravia is sealed *.

COMMENTS:

Svatopluk is an interesting example of a late opera which is, for the most part, accessible to more traditional opera people. It is not atonal or 12-tone, and the most modern music in it resembles Le sacre du Printemps at its mildest. The plot (which along with the libretto is taken almost directly from a play by Slovakian dramatist Ivan Stodola) does consist of a series of by now well worn out theatrical cliches like pagan human sacrifices, the conflict between pagans and Christians (although here neither side actually wins), scheming princesses, self-sacrificing slave girls who give their lives for their masters, warring rival princes, attempted patricide on the night of a full moon, holy monk younger third brother, a miserable ending predicting nothing but doom for the remaining characters. There are also too many main characters (nine in total), and none of them is the primary character, the cast is very much an ensemble not dominated by any of the roles, which can feel cluttered at times. If not for the pagan aspects, the entire action could be transplanted to Serbia circa 1205 with the rivalry between Hungarian Roman Catholics and Serbian Orthodox Christians and retitled Sveti Sava without much notice, but what the heck, throw in some Bogomils and the human sacrifice part could at least anachronistically fly!

The score, on the other hand, is a bit different. The role of Zaboj  is obviously designed as a great tenor cameo part, and much of the best music goes to this one character, but there are some other goodies like the incredibly creepy pagan march in act 2 (it literally freaked me out the first time!) and much of the music for the long suffering Milena. The role of Young Svatopluk seems like it must be exhausting to sing with its near constant force-9 tenor ranting and raging. Lutomira seems like the sort of role best suited to a soprano-actress rather than an opera singer. Old Svatopluk is perhaps the best characterization in the opera (Suchon even uses the timpani to symbolize his heart beat in order to amplify the dramatic tension, when does an orchestra in opera represent organ function?), and could be seen as a Slovak Boris Godunov. However, I think I can safely say that if Zaboj is meant for a showy tenor, Mojmir is the role with which we the audience is to have the strongest connection. Alpha minus.

One thought on “Eugen Suchon: Svatopluk (1960)

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