Jiří Bĕlohlávek Takes Leave of BBC Orchestra with Dvořák Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák Jakobín:  (sung in Czech, with English surtitles). Soloists, BBC Singers, Trinity Boys’ Choir & Old Palace Chamber Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek (concuctor), Barbican Hall, London, 4.2.2012. (CC)

Bohuš – Svatopluk Sem
Julie – Dana Burešova
Filip – Jozef Benci
Benda – Jaroslav Březina
Terinka – Lucie Fišer Silkenová
Jiří – Aleš Voráček
Adolf – Jiří Hájek
Count Vilém – Jan Martiník
Lotinka – Lynette Alcántara
Stage Director Kenneth Richardson

That Jiří Bĕlohlávek is to leave his post as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (a post he took up in July 2006) is a cause of much sadness. He has brought many musical gems from his Czech homeland to the attention of London’s concertgoers. He goes to his rightful place in the Czech Republic, though, as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

The predominance of Czech names (mezzo Lynette Alcántra is Australian; Jozef Benci is Slovak) almost guaranteed an authentic feel. That the very English BBC SO could capture the essential Czech feel of the music was testament to Bĕlohlávek’s work with the orchestra over his tenure. The opening to Act 2 was testament to this, full of Bohemian warmth.

Written to a libretto by the impressively-named Marie Červinková-Riegrová’, this sweet Czech village opera teems with vim and joy. The pacing of the work rules out any hint of tedium, as Dvořák mixes his arias, duets, ensembles and choruses as if using so many colours from an artist’s palette. The story (set just after the French revolution) finds Bohuš returning to his hometown with his wife Julie, from France. He has been renounced by his father as a dangerous Jacobin, finding a Bohuš-substitute in Adolf. Bohuš returns without divulging his identity. Balancing the couple of Bohuš and Julie is Terinka (daughter of the charismatic music master Benda, and being amorously pursued by Filip, with Benda’s approval) and the young forester Jiří.

The role of the Count does not become significant until Act 3, where he realises that the prisoner in his castle is indeed Bohuš. The opera ends with both couples happily united.

So much for the general plot, included here to give a general flavour of the goings-on. What was noteworthy was the composer’s excellent mix of lyricism (there is a great lyrical impulse at work here) with comedy. The tenor Jaroslav Březina was completely inside his role as Benda; the other main role tenor, Aleš Voráček, took a little while to get going and even when he did, he was not entirely convincing in his portrayal of Jiří. Yet the range of his part is difficult, and he was able to negotiate it well. The voices were carefully chosen (presumably by Bĕlohlávek), as the duetting young lovers Jiří and Terinka were beautifully light-voiced, fresh and appealing. Terinka’s aria, “Ach Bože, božínku”, was impeccably delivered by Lucie Fišer Silkenová, providing a powerful, poignant moment that elevated the emotions from the village to the global; the rapturous Jiří/Terinka duet came off well, too.

The other couple was excellent from the very first. Neither Dana Burešova and Svatopluk Sem faltered at any stage, and properly brought their roles to a climax in the final act. Kenneth Richardson’s “staging “ was fairly minimalist – the characters wore costumes, but the action was mainly delineated via the physical placement of the characters across the available space, effectively enabling us to concentrate on the music itself.

A wonderful, life-affirming evening, filled with the joy of discovery. Whilst this is not great opera, it is certainly worth hearing. The evening’s programme points to a Supraphon recording, a Brno performance under Jiří Pinkas. So there’s no excuse not to explore, then

Colin Clarke