The Case for Dvořák

ItalyItaly DvořákOrchestra of Santa Cecilia.  Conductor, Juraj Valčuha.  Enrico Dindo (cello). Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome 28.11.2014 (JB)


Rusalka  Denis Krief Svetla Vassileva(Rusalka)®C.M.Falsini-Teatro dell’Opera di Roma_

Dvořák, RusalkaChorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome.  Conductor, Elvind Gullberg Jensen;  Stage Director, Sets and Costumes, Denis Krief; Chorus Master Roberto Gabbiani; Choreographer, Denys Ganio..

Spirit of the Lake, Steven Humes
Rusalka-his daughter, Svetla Vassileva
The Prince, Maksim Aksenov
Jezibaba-the Witch, Larissa Diadkova
The Foreign Princess, Michelle Breedt
The Forester, Igor Gnidii
The Kitchen Boy, Eva Liebau [/table]
The Three Wood Nymphs: Anna Gorbachyova, Federica Giansanti and Hannah Esther Minutillo.

Teatro dell’Opera Rome.  02.12.20014 (JB)


Whenever he read a new poem, W H Auden used to say there were two questions he asked himself: how does this poem work as a verbal contraption?  And What kind of guy inhabits these lines?

Put into musical terms,  that would mean enquiring into the musical mechanisms the composer has required the performers to engage with (or maybe query –which amounts to the same thing).  And what does this music tell us about the guy who wrote it?

Beethoven is forever  querying musical form and instrumental expression in his late works.  So, surprisingly, is Chopin in the Ballades, as I had occasion to mention in a recent review.  Mozart is scarcely ever an innovative composer where form is concerned.  But stylistically, that doesn’t make him inferior to Chopin or Beethoven.  Arguably, it is just here –in his unmistakable style- that Mozart strikes gold,  and is possibly therein, superior to the other two.

But in putting the focus on style  have we tipped into Auden’s second question?

In a long-ago, clever essay, Susan Sontag argued that style is content.  She has a point.  To treat the two as separate, creates an unnecessary artifice.  It lands us into a chicken or egg –which came first?  syndrome.

All composers are in the communication business.  And all of them are dependent on their performers to communicate their music.  And until that music arrives in the ears of its audiences, it cannot properly be considered music. A kind of  holy trinity is at work here: God the Father (the composer and his score –the indications of the Ideas), God the Son (the performers and their performance –the practical expression of the ideas) and God the Holy Ghost (the audiences –the diffusion and reception of the musical ideas).

What is more, the trinity is self-perpetuating, in that there will always be folks in the audience who feel they can write better music than what they hear and musicians in the audience who are sure they can play the music “better”.  That gets us very close to Gore Vidal’s quip that There are more people writing novels in the UK than reading them.

See too how that trinity easily gets unbalanced.  There are occasions when the power of performers outstrips the ideas of the composer.  And, more rarely, when audiences greedily imbibe the most almighty trash put out by conviction performers.  This brings me to the case for Dvořák.


Dvořák has been accused –unfairly, in my view- of being short on actual musical ideas,  but in having the art of seduction with his performers.  He gave violin recitals at the age of six, blessed as such with the force of nature.  It’s exactly that force of nature which he clearly passes on to the soloist in the cello concerto.

Dvořák actively disliked the cello.  But actively disliking something can often produce your best work.  In this case one hears composer and soloist sweating out discoveries of unexpected expression in  the instrument.  But the composer’s agnosticism toward the instrument and his eventual “conversion” to it, is the music-drama which greets the ear

I’d better confess that I  was once a lousy cellist, which paradoxically gives me a greater appreciation of anyone with cello mastery.  Enrico Dindo blazed a path of glory through Dvořák’s musical-dramatic challenges.  What makes the first movement work as a  contraption (to borrow Auden’s term) is certainly not its form.  For that, Dvořák turned the clock back a century by giving us an old sonata form whereby the themes of the exposition are announced before the soloist gets a look in.

But wait!  There’s method in his madness.  We are studiedly lulled into a false security.  The war is upon us without warning in the cello’s first entry with the most un-cello like tune ever heard.  The orchestra tries a calming technique.  It felt as though the lushest Mediterranean sun had come out in Guglielmo Pellarin’s (first horn) announcement of this theme with Alessandro Carbonare’s (first clarinet) answering of it.  (Dvořák is well-versed in Mediterranean musical warmth.)  But it is as though the battlefield is even better illuminated.  The “dispute” heats up.  Dvořák foregoes cadenzas.  Nothing so vulgar.  What we hear is a lyric opera in symphonic form.

Juraj Valčuha brought out some impressive biting rhythms from the Santa Cecilia Orchestra; this young Czech’s baton is fired from his gut, as we were able to appreciate from his Bartered Bride  overture which preceded the cello concerto.

Enrico Dindo gave an encore of a short Dvořák cello and orchestra piece which he called In the Shades of the Forest .  (I give an English translation.)  This was pure Palm Court music.  Well why not?  Having heard the cello as you never hear it, now we hear it as you do.  Very beautiful it was too.  Like Verdi, when Dvořák engages with cliché, it never sounds like cliché.  That secret is bound up with the unique relationship he establishes with his instrumentalists.


In 1899, fifty-eight year old Dvořák was an established composer, admired for his symphonic and chamber music the world over, as well as a hero at the National Opera in Prague.  The thirty-one year old aspiring poet, Jaroslav Kvapil, nervously submitted his completed libretto for an opera to the Great Maestro.  It was love at first bite.   In Rusalka  -with its themes of love and magic and the impossibility of both- it seemed to Dvořák that the poet’s words carried their own lyricism.  He set to work at once, the music pouring out of him as fast as he could get it onto the page.  He didn’t ask for a single change or rewrite.  Kvapil’s inspiration had been fairy stories (especially Hans Christian Andersen’s The Forsaken Mermaid).  Poet and composer were both steeped in folklore and fairy tales and the truths which imagination reveals through these traditions.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that they wanted to convert a public of unbelievers into a public of believers.  That is exactly what they did.  The nationalistic aspect was a big pull in this.   These were times when nationality spelt pride.

I’ve already tried to show how Dvořák as a symphonist introduced the operatic into the concert hall.  But he also shines as a symphonist in the Opera House.  Rusalka  is his operatic masterpiece.  All his multiple craftsmanships find perfect expression in this work.

It pains me to report that the Rome Opera appear not to know any of this.  It is, of course, my duty to explain this criminal negligence.  I shall try to do so without taking the focus away from what I set out to do: to give myself and my readers the Case for Dvořák.

Rusalka’s Song to the Moon (early in Act 1) is one of the most touching yet chaste of operatic love songs (Lord Harewood’s words).  To be touching and chaste at the same time may seem impossible.  But this is Antonin Dvořák.  He thrives on the challenge of  expressing seemingly contradictory sentiments in the same music.  The Bulgarian soprano, Svetla Vassileva, shows nothing of either.  Any note below B in the middle of the stave comes out as spoken rather than sung.  And any note above that B is a horrendous out-of-tune shriek.  She is beautiful to look at but this doesn’t extend to her voice.  I always thought that that should be the main consideration at the Opera.

She wasn’t helped by the so-called conductor.  Dvořák’s delicate orchestration palette didn’t get a look-in.  There were the same excellent players in the Rome Opera Orchestra.  But they sounded like a baked sausage stew which had been left in an overheated oven for too long.  The handsome young Norwegian,  Elvind Gullberg Jensen, on the podium, looked like a real conductor.  He was waving his long arms almost poetically.  (By the way, the public fell for this when it came to the applause.)  I couldn’t believe his inadequacies so I tried to find something about him on the web.  Was this glamorous young man just a bad joke?  Click here to find out:

Maksim Aksenov was credibile as the Prince.  He showed some genuine appreciation of Dvořák’s uniqueness of phrasing and was constantly observant of dynamic colouring.  In the final duet he even managed to inspire some decent sounds  from Ms Vassileva.  Even the non-conductor was following them nicely.  He should, of course, have been leading them.

Most offensive of all was Denis Krief’s staging, set and costumes.  Not only was there no poetry and no magic, the whole show was mostly in  powerful,  fixed lighting which prevented the audience from reading the thoughtfully-provided surtitles in English and italian, without shading their eyes from the glare.  The death of imagination, Mr Krief.  Why?

Some of the minor roles were noteworthy.  Larissa Diadkova was completely into the role of the Witch, both dramatically and vocally.  Kvapil and Dvořák  are at some pains to make her human as well as menacing and Ms Diadkova delivered well on both scores.  Most outstanding of all were the three Wood Nymphs who are given a memorable scene at the beginning of Act 3.  This is clearly inspired by Wagner’s Rheinemaidens, though Dvořák is much more skilled in introducing effects of water in both voices and instruments. (The non-conductor missed this last, of course.) Excellent as these three women were, I couldn’t help chuckling as comedienne Anna Russell’s words flashed into my head.  She, of course was talking about the Rheinemaidens, but transposed, it comes out as, At the beginning of Act 3, if this dreary bunch of aunts don’t tell this whole story over again from the beginning; so you can miss out Acts 1 and 2 and come in at the beginning of Act 3, and you’ll be just as far ahead.   Sorry you couldn’t have had Anna Russell reporting on the entire show.  Most  apt.

For all Rome Opera’s attempts to destroy Rusalka, it still comes out as a complete vindication of the power of inspired lyricism to express drama and human emotion (George Lascelles again).

Jack Buckley

3 thoughts on “The Case for Dvořák”

  1. Really excellent review slightly marred by direct insult of under-performing artists.While I am not at all familiar with these musicians, the point might be better made by use of irony etc. I know that this reviewer is capable of it; the Jack Buckley who once taught me would probably have put all this down to the effect of ‘national characteristics’ but that was back in a different era.

  2. What an appalling review. I’ve long thought that this reviewer must have sustained significant hearing damage since he seems unable to detect good sounds when they’re presented for him on the stage, but worse than that, these windy reviews with their ridiculous sweeping generalizations seem written more to display “knowledge” than to report accurately what went on at the opera.


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