Antonin Dvorak: Alfred (1870)

Opera in three acts and seven scenes. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

Dvorak, that most nationalist of Czech composers, wrote his first opera to a German-language libretto which had earlier been set by Friedrich von Flotow. It would not be performed until 34 years after his death, in December 1938. The principle influences on the score are Wagner (especially that of Tannhauser), Verdi, and Smetana. In many ways it is dreadful, but LOUD!

I also don’t have a libretto for this so the tracks are missing libretto cues. It probably doesn’t matter, however, since I essentially give five comments per act so as to keep track of who is coming and going.

SETTING: England, sometime between 871 and 886. The basic premise is a love triangle between the Danish Prince Harald (tenor), his captive the English Princess Alvina (soprano), and her fiancé King Alfred of the English (bass), only Alvina is in love with Alfred and Harald eventually commits suicide when the Danes are finally defeated by the English. Apart from Alfred coming up with various ways of rescuing Alvina, nothing else really happens in the opera.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The Danish camp. (51 minutes)

0: The concert overture * is an interesting and long piece, starting off with harps and bells as if to tell us that there was no development between this and Armida in the entire Dvorak rep. It continues on what is obviously inspiration from Tannhauser (and something that sounds like a quote from Libuše) until around ten minutes in when we get a bit of a march, but then back to the Tannhauser, or might it even be Rienzi? The finish is a bit starchy. It is effective enough, the orchestration in particular is handled well, although the elements are hardly all that interesting tune-wise and it feels like it just goes on forever.

18: A starchy opening chorus for the apparently celebrating Danes. The Danish second in command, Prince Gothron, recounts a bizarre and fateful dream he has had in which the English King Alfred was crowned victory over the Danish. This is a fitful scene, Dvorak does not seem to know what to do with his orchestra and the accompaniment to the comparatively stable vocal line is chaotic *. Not really worth a star, but I am including it so you look out for how bizarre it is.

25: Harald arrives, a march occurs as does a chorus as the English prisoners are brought in, Alvina among them although she is totally silent. Harald immediately tries to court her.

34: Harald comes into a deep wooing of Alvina *, she continues to say nothing as a ballet is performed followed by a chorus of English prisoners. He goes on (to a nice tune for once) and even competes with the male chorus. A good four minute sequence, although by the end it almost turns into a shout-fest which comes close to being deafening. Then we have yet another dance sequence (at times this one is weird).

47: Harald continues his wooing of Alvina (who finally says something after being on stage for some twenty minutes!). Eventually there is a burst of something that actually has a tune, and it is in fact a duet that would later be transposed and transplanted into the first act of Vanda *, a second part of this duet returns towards the end although the finale chorus returns us to the chaos of earlier and the act ends with yet another  symphonic dance. Hold on to this one because it is probably the only tune to speak of in the entire opera.

ACT 2: (32 minutes)

Scene 1: A forest clearing.

1: We finally meet Alfred * after an orchestral introduction that seems to come from the bowels of the earth. His second, Sieward, arrives and tells him that his army has been captured along with Alvina. Alfred determines to free her by infiltrating the Danish camp disguised as a harpist. He discusses with Dorset (the tenor) how they will go about this.

Scene 2: Near a tower where Alvina has been imprisoned.

13, 21: Alvina sings her sad song in the tower. Alfred comes on in the guise of a harpist with Dorset and they promise to free her. This is probably the most un-Wagnerian sequence in the opera *.  Eventually Gothron arrives with Danish troops and they capture Alfred not knowing who he is. An interlude featuring harp * scales the scene change.

Scene 3: The Danish camp.

24: Alfred is brought before Harald, who gets a really nice bit *. More harp as well.

26: The finale * starts with the arrival of Alvina, who has somehow escaped and decided to run towards the Danish camp for some reason. Alfred reveals who he is and there is a frightful time (based on a section from the overture). The two successfully flee.

ACT 3: (42 minutes)

Scene 1: A rocky glen in the forest.

1, 12: A chorus of English soldiers and Dorset * has influences from both the second act prelude of Tannhauser and the first act finale of Lohengrin. Dorset greets Alvina as she runs into them and tells them that Alfred is alive and well and that they all need to join up with him to defeat the Danes in what is vaguely an aria but does not have the structural form of one. The soldiers go, leaving Alvina, who is then captured by Harald and his Danish forces. At least for once this bit is furious *.

Scene 2: The tent of Alfred.

19: Dorset and Alfred plot how to get Alvina out of the Danish camp. Alfred has a gentle if sedate aria con coro at this point which is worth looking out for at least *. It eventually crescendos well. Although not the most tuneful, it might be the best constructed piece in the opera.

Scene 3: The Danish camp after the English invasion.

25: Harald and Alvina get into a little bit of their duet tune from act 1 again *. He pleas with her to love him, and fails miserably before the English troops headed by Alfred arrive (more reworking of the one duet tune). Harald stabs himself in order to avoid capture by the English when the tide of Danish victory turns, and dies.

34: The one good tune in the opera gets taken up by Alvina and Alfred this time as they celebrate the English victory over the Danes * over an eight minute long sequence, which feels like it is a few minutes too drawn out.

COMMENTS:

It is impossible to look at Alfred as a mature opera. It is the compositional practice of a twenty-nine year old Wagner-fanboy to a cliched German libretto. At least the fanboy was already an experienced symphonist, but speaking as an uppity twenty-nine year old with an opera blog, this thing is dreadful. At times the orchestration drowns out the singers (especially the tenor, which isn’t just terrible but also dangerous) and much of the music gives the impression that Dvorak did not really know what he was doing at the time, either rushed or cluttered. There are few melodies to speak of apart from the main tune from the duet for Harald and Alvina at the end of act 1 which Dvorak wisely repeats later in the opera and incorporated into the score of Vanda five years later, although Harald gets the rare tune when there is one and Alfred gets one okay aria. The orchestration, when it isn’t drowning out the singers, can be okay, especially the harp features. The overture is extremely long, most likely in an attempt to emulate the equally long (but much better) one that is attached to Tannhauser which Wagner completed when he was only three years older than Dvorak was when he wrote this. Thankfully, Dvorak was given to brevity more so than Wagner so the work is shorter even than Dutchman. He also moved in a different direction after this and when he next turned to the operatic stage he wrote comedies for a few years, a better choice. A student gamma.

One thought on “Antonin Dvorak: Alfred (1870)

  1. Don’t be too hard on Alfred. Dvorak likely thought of a just an exercise, he never mentioned to anyone and didn’t bother to publish it or get it performed.

    I’ve just listened to The Cunning Peasant… wonderful stuff, and as you say better at comedies at this stage of his career.

    Like

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