A diabolical double bill of Rachmaninoff at Prague’s Opera 2020 Festival

14/01/2020

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Rachmaninoff, Francesca da Rimini & The Miserly Knight: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the F. X. Šalda Theater Liberec / Martin Doubravský (conductor), F. X. Šalda Theater guest performance, Národní Divadlo Prague, 5.1.2020. (SS)

Francesca da Rimini (c) Michaela Škvrňáková

Production:

Director – Linda Keprtová
Sets – Michal Syrový
Costumes – Tomáš Kypta

Cast:

Francesca da Rimini – Lívia Obručník Vénosová
Ghost of Virgil / Duke – Csaba Kotlár
Dante Alighieri / Moneylender – Dušan Růžička
Lanciotto Malatesta / Baron – Pavol Kubáň
Paolo Malatesta / Albert – Josef Moravec
Server – Anatolij Orel

The first full week of the new decade has been eventful for opera in the Czech capital: not only did the State Opera reopen its doors following a three-year renovation (more of which in a later report), but the Opera 2020 Music Theater Festival got underway on the city’s other lyric stages. Taking place biennially since 1993, the year of Czechia’s ‘velvet divorce’ from Slovakia, this event functions like a longer-running version of Berlin’s Theatertreffen. A select number of new productions from opera houses across Czechia, and lately also Slovakia, are showcased in Prague, with performances this year taking place from the beginning of January to the beginning of March.

I arrived in town on the second day of the festival, having already seen the opening night performance a year ago in Ostrava (a splendid outing of Janáček’s inexplicably unloved Osud, which gets another new staging at the Janáček Brno Festival later this year). On the second night, the National Theater played host to the F. X. Šalda Theater Liberec and its production of Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini and The Miserly Knight. Having seen Francesca a few times before, even having sung its ‘wordless’ chorus (it’s not quite wordless), I was curious to see it for the first time in its original double bill, rather than with Rachmaninoff’s Aleko or Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.

It turns out there are a couple of good reasons why the original double bill of Francesca and the Knight tends to be shunned nowadays: the latter’s anti-Semitism is no joke, and despite having more musical variety than Francesca, it’s largely similar in style. The lighter scoring of Iolanta offers a more vibrant contrast.

Linda Keprtová’s 2018 production avoids contrast altogether and presents the two operas in a continuous flow. The walled set is claustrophobic and oppressive, with Tomáš Kypta’s retro-1930s costumes evoking more an unspecified Orwellian state than any historical regime (i.e. communism). One advantage of performing the operas in their original double bill is seeing the common theme of hierarchies – patriarchy and later Dante’s ordering of hell in Francesca; the feudal power structure in The Miserly Knight – and how their characters are subjected to them. The dramaturgy and suspense of both works is also structured around fateful challenges to their respective social systems: Francesca defies her husband’s authority, while the son’s actions in the Knight grind relentlessly towards a fatal confrontation with his baron father and the duke.

The only female role in the entire double bill is Francesca, sung in this performance by Lívia Obručník Vénosová with a rich and assertive soprano that carried over (nearly) all of the orchestration. Her Paolo, the tenor Josef Moravec (who also sang the role of the son in The Miserly Knight), strained more to cut through but was otherwise solid. Pavol Kubáň sang Lanciotto in Francesca but really came into his own in the Knight’s title role, playing the Baron as a power-mad tyrant with baritonal vocal menace to match. Tenor Dušan Růžička’s unctuous take on Dante carried over into the Knight, where his (and Keprtová’s) characterization of the Moneylender only accentuated the anti-Semitism in the text. I am not sure exactly what was going on here, except that it looked offensive but also unintentional, and that this hardly reflects well on the unreformed state of opera direction in 2020. Baritone Csaba Kotlár was a stately presence as the Ghost of Virgil and the Duke, with authoritative singing revealing where the real source of power lay, especially in his Knight scene with Kubáň’s autocratic Baron.

This was a good cast in a slick, occasionally striking production, but Martin Doubravský’s conducting was what really stood out. Rachmaninoff draws out every second of the long descent into hell at the beginning of Francesca, but Doubravský’s expert pacing somehow kept the monotony of this endless chromatic spiral at bay – no mean feat! For the rest of the evening, he dexterously leaned in and out of the melodrama of the two scores while staying relatively singer-friendly. All this was ably aided by the F. X. Šalda Theater’s fine orchestra and chorus, with two highlights being the smooth string playing and the wide, awkward horn intervals at the end of Francesca dispatched with graceful ease.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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