Rare Dvořák Opera at Chicago’s Grant Park Festival

United StatesUnited States  Dvořák, The Spectre’s Bride: Jonita Lattimore (soprano), Brendan Tuohy (tenor), Stephen Hegedus (bass), Grant Park Chorus, Grant Park Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Millennium Park, Chicago, 17.8.2012 (JLZ)

Dvořák: The Spectre’s Bride, op. 69

The final concert of the 2012 Grant Park Music Festival was devoted exclusively to Antonin Dvořák’s dramatic cantata The Spectre’s Bride, Op. 60 (Svatebli kosile), a rarely performed work from 1884 – a setting of a fable about a woman who is seduced by the ghost of her lover. While she initially succumbs to the invitation, which would unite her with her lost beloved, the woman eventually attends to the clues in the ghost’s exchanges, and abandons him just before dawn, as the phantoms are dispelled. The story fits into a tradition of similar eastern European ghost stories, such as in lieder by Zumsteeg and Tomasek, and larger works by Duparc, Raff and Hüttenbrenner. Dvořák’s vivid presentation of the story, with its text by Karol Jaromir Erben, is in three scenes for soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Since soprano Aleksandra Kurzak was unable to perform, Jonita Lattimore substituted, giving an outstanding reading of the title role. It was impressive to hear her negotiate the demands of the part’s range with such ease and aplomb. Her sense of style was entirely appropriate; her phrasing made the English translation here sound completely  natural.  While she sang in all three scenes, the climactic prayer (to the Blessed Virgin for assistance in dealing with the forces of hell) was intense in its ardor. Lattimore’s reading evoked the soaring, famous “Song to the Moon” in Dvořák’s later opera Rusalka, and she elicited spontaneous applause from the large audience.

The other soloists were also impressive, with tenor Brendan Tuohy as the voice of the Spectre – solid in pitch and diction, with a ringing sound – and his interactions with Lattimore showed off his acting skills. At the same time bass Stephen Hegedus was notable as the narrator, and his nuances helped propel the story as we learned of the bride’s foolish decisions and her efforts to redeem herself. The passages between Hegedus and the chorus were especially moving, fresh and earnest.

The Grant Park Chorus is noted for its polished sound, and they were particularly good here, showing fine balance and diction, with reliable intonation. There were some challenges in the balances with the bass soloist, but ultimately they handled them well. In terms of timbre, the chorus gave a distinctive sound to the dark and threatening numbers in the last scene, reinforced by Dvořák’s instrumental scoring. Here conductor Carlos Kalmar led the ensemble with elegance and admirable focus – especially since there was some competition with street sounds from emergency vehicles and loud motorcycles. But in the end the music won out, and the audience applauded graciously, with particularly loud ovations for Lattimore.

One suggestion: some surtitles would help (as is  common in opera), especially when the limited light of early evening makes it difficult to read the program, and the Pritzker Pavilion’s large stage would be ideal. But this was a small complaint, given the quality of the performance, and overall the festival should be lauded for bringing this work to modern audiences – the first time it was programmed here.

James L. Zychowicz