United Kingdom Antonin Dvorák, The Jacobin. (sung in English, with surtitles): Soloists, Northern Chamber Orchestra, / Stephen Barlow (conductor), Opera House, Buxton, 12.7.2014 (RJF)
Count Harasova, Andrew Greenan
Bohuš, Nicholas Lester
Adolf, James McOran-Campbell
Julie, Anne Sophie Duprels
Philip, Nicholas Folwell
Jiří, Matthew Newlin
Benda, Bonaventura Bottone
Terinka, Anna Patalong
Stage Director, Stephen Unwin.
Stage Designer, Paul Willis.
Apart from Rusalka, and its famous Song to the Moon, Dvorák’s operas are little known in the UK. The composer had begun composing in the genre by the time he was thirty. By his involvement, as Jan Smaczny’s programme essay points out, he hoped to foster the development of opera in his country and help justify a new theatre. With seven operas under his belt when he received the libretto for The Jacobin, he procrastinated for nearly three years before settling down to write. Set at the time of the French Revolution the opera tells the story of a young Bohemian nobleman and his wife who return from Paris to seek reconciliation with his estranged father and regain his inheritance. He ends up getting entangled in the plot of involving his father’s henchman lusting after a young girl who prefers a local beau. It is billed as a comedy, but opera giacoso might be a more appropriate term given the happy ending.
The work is sung in English in a translation by polylingual scholar Rodney Blumer, better known as Rodney Milnes, the non-pareil opera critic and writer. His vast skill and knowledge manifests itself in the matching prosody of his English words and Dvorák’s music, aided and appreciated by an excellent singing cast whose diction all but obviated the necessity of surtitles. The latter did not distract from the simple staging and unfolding of the plot by Director Stephen Unwin and his Set Designer with an important contribution from Malcolm Rippeth’s imaginative lighting of the backdrop.
Clarity of singers’ diction is useless if it is drowned by an over-loud orchestra. I noticed last year that Stephen Barlow is a conductor who relishes melody and rhythmic vitality whilst achieving clarity in both without excessive decibels. He opened the overture with brio and tempered the orchestra as the back-lit gauze revealed Benda and his flock. The arrival of the dispossessed son and his wife from Paris brought the period of the production into focus. Although the locals could be of the time of the opera’s composition, the tall Nicholas Lester, as Bohus, in a gabardine, and his more petite wife in a smart two piece, moved the time to the nineteen thirties. The Fascist like costume of the lusting Filip placed dictatorship and class distinctions firmly in focus.
As well as the clarity of the singing, the simplistic set aided by a few props and imaginative lighting were essential to the unfolding story. Notable among the assumptions was the character tenor Bonaventura Bottone as Benda; his acted portrayal was outstanding among a very strong cast of singer actors. Notable too was Andrew Greenan’s acted portrayal of Count Harasova, having taken over and learned the role a mere three days after the withdrawal of Matthew Best. Without exception the rest of the cast acted and sang their roles with distinction.
It has been nearly twenty years since The Jacobin was last seen in a professional production in the UK. Under the guiding hand of this Buxton team it is a very worthy addition to the repertory and need not break the bank in terms of set, although the cast of primo singers required could not be skimped.
Further performances take place on July 18th and 24th with a matinee performance on Sunday 26th. Catch it while you can.
Robert J Farr