A Prague Spring: Simon Thompson in the Czech Capital

A Prague Spring – Simon Thompson spends a week in the Czech capital (ST) 

Blessed with a couple of weeks’ holiday I decided to take myself to Prague to sample the musical delights of one of central Europe’s most vibrant cultural capitals.  The famously beautiful city looks great at this time of year with plenty of spring sunshine and a pleasantly warm feel all day. 

Rudolfinum & Prague Castle in the background

Looking down on the city from the ramparts of the castle you’re constantly impressed by the artistic pedigree of the place.  This is the city of Smetana and Dvořák, where Mozart premiered two of his operas and where music was in many ways the tool of national liberation.  Still today the Prague Spring Festival begins every year with a procession from Smetana’s grave at Vyšehrad to the Smetana Hall where the Prague Symphony Orchestra perform Má Vlast.  It’s a special town for music lovers and, on a practical level, there is a lot going on.  I don’t just mean the daily concerts for tourists, though it’s true that almost every church or hall in the city must get used regularly for a chamber music concert or a recital.  On a more “serious” note, Prague has three opera houses and two major international orchestras.

The National Theatre on the banks of the Vltava

The National Theatre was opened in 1881 on a wave of cultural patriotism, the so-called National Revival.  It opened with a performance of Smetana’s Libuše, the same work which re-opened the theatre in 1883 after it had been destroyed by fire.  Its construction involved every major Czech artist of the day and symbols of Czech nationalist legend cover every facade, interior decoration and even the proscenium.  As well as staging Czech plays, and plays in Czech translation, it houses the country’s main opera company.  I saw The Tales of Hoffmann and Parsifal.  The National Theatre company also runs the Estates Theatre just off the Old Town Square.  Built in 1783 it puts on similar repertoire to the National but in much more intimate surroundings.  The theatre itself is brilliantly preserved and presents a unique theatre-going experience: if you’ve seen Amadeus, it’s where most of the opera scenes were filmed.  Famously, it’s also the theatre in which Mozart himself premiered Don Giovanni (something the tourist board is pleased to remind us of at any turn) and La Clemenza di Tito.  I saw Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute and thoroughly enjoyed both.

Auditorium of the State Opera

Meanwhile across town, the German community of Prague, not to be outdone by the founding of the National Theatre, founded their own company known today as the Prague State Opera.  It’s still a separate company today, though there are predictable moves afoot to cut costs by merging it with the National Theatre.  The theatre is smaller than the National but the inside is fabulously ornate with excellent acoustics.  Mahler himself conducted there and the original impresario Angelo Neumann brought a dazzling array of German singers there in its early years.

Estates Theatre

The productions I saw were broadly traditional in style.  The Mozart at the Estates Theatre was squarely set in the time that Mozart designed for it and there were no major visual surprises, though the Queen of the Night’s entry was arresting enough.  Hoffmann was clearly in the costumes of Offenbach’s time and made use of a revolving stage to implement the transition between the opera’s different worlds.  Madam Butterfly at the State Opera was almost comically traditional.  Only Parsifal tried to do something imaginative with the staging, but this mainly consisted of a giant sand-pit being raked and I just found it strangely dull.

The most impressive thing about the operas is how many singers come from their own companies.  Some leads were imported, such as Alfons Eberz’s Austrian Parsifal or Marc Laho’s Belgian Hoffmann, but the rest of the casts tended to come from the National or State Opera companies, and there were some knockout performances there, most notably Marie Fajitová’s top-notch Donna Anna or the Commendatore/Sarastro or Miloslav Podskalský.  I was also hugely impressed by the Massetto of Lukáš Sládek.  The biggest name I heard was Eva Urbanová’s Kundry: she got a great ovation from the home crowd but she’s undeniably past her best and she sounded strained and pressed towards the end of Act 2.  The most moving experience I had was probably Madam Butterfly, a pretty pedestrian production but brought to life by excellent singing from Adriana Kohútková and Veronika Hajnová in the two leads, though Tomáš Černý’s Pinkerton was pretty awful.

The Prague operas houses have two other huge things in their favour: first, the cost.  Ticket prices were well below what you would pay for good seats in London theatres: the best seat in the house for Butterfly would set you back around £35 while even at the National Theatre the best seat for Parsifal cost around £65, a fraction of what the equivalent seat would have cost at Covent Garden.  The second thing is that all three theatres cater very well for an English speaking audience: the programme essays are published in English as well as Czech and supertitles are provided in English too.  In the case of The Magic Flute, which was sung in Czech, supertitles were in English and German, so the theatres must be aware that they have a substantial international clientele to cater for.  The singing may not be up to the top notch standard you might expect in Paris or Berlin, but you can be sure of a pretty good experience in any of the Prague theatres, and Don Giovanni in the theatre in which it was premiered is a pretty special event.

However, the best purely musical experience I had all week was in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum where I had the pleasure of hearing the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Prague Philharmonic Choir in a red-hot performance of Verdi’s Requiem.  As international concert halls go the Rudolfinum is surprisingly small and only a fraction of the size of, say, Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, but the intimacy of the venue makes the whole experience more unique and it means that you’re right up-close to the music, particularly when it’s something as blistering as the Verdi Requiem.  Every colour of Verdi’s large scale orchestration was clearly audible, played brilliantly by every section giving its all, though the brass were particularly colourful.  The discipline and articulation of the choir were the best I’ve heard in a long time and conductor Massimo Zanetti brought plenty of Italian fire to bring the performance alive.  He also had a great cast of international soloists who were as committed as the players.  Italian soprano Serene Farnocchia and Cameroonian bass Jacques-Greg Belobo carried conviction as well as power, but the show was regularly stolen by Italian mezzo Anna Maria Chiuri whose fire-eating contributions to both the Liber scriptus and Lux aeterna were proper moments that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  Only Slovakian tenor Ludovít Ludha sounded a tiny bit pinched in places, but this didn’t detract from a performance of great power.  Again, the Rudolfinum prints its programme notes and artist biographies in English and the setting, next to the Vltava with a view up to Prague Castle, is stunning.

So give Prague some thought next time you’re planning a holiday; it’s about a lot more than beautiful buildings and cheap beer.  Its array of cultural events could keep any music lover happy for many days and the charm of the city remains undiminished by the crowds.  The following links might be helpful if you want to know what’s on:

National Theatre & Estates Theatre
Prague State Opera

Simon Thompson