A clash of cultures front and center in Dvořák’s Armida at Prague’s National Theatre

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Dvořák, Armida: Soloists, National Theatre Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra / Robert Jindra (conductor). National Theatre, Prague, 16.6.2023. (RP)

Alžběta Poláčková (Armida) © Zdeněk Sokol

Director – Jiří Heřman
Sets – Dragan Stojčevski
Costumes – Zuzana Rusínová
Lighting – Daniel Tesař
Dramaturge – Patricie Částková
Choreography – Marek Svobodník
Chorus master – Lukáš Kozubík

King Hydraot – František Zahradníček
Armida – Alžběta Poláčková
Rinald – Aleš Briscein
Ismen – Svatopluk Sem
Petr – Štefan Kocán
Bohumir – Martin Bárta
Roger – Václav Sibera
Sven – Martin Šrejma
Gernand – Miloš Horák
Ubald – Jan Šťáva
Muezzin – Radek Martinec
Siren – Doubravka Součková
Dervish – Patrik Čermák

Dvořák’s final opera, Armida, is once again in the repertoire of Prague’s National Theatre. It was last staged at the National Theatre in 1987, and this production, directed by Jiří Heřman, is the acclaimed Czech director’s first venture for the company in almost a decade.

Dvořák was eager to compose another opera but could not find a suitable Czech-language libretto. Poet Jaroslav Vrchlický reminded him that some fourteen years earlier he had suggested one based on Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme liberata. Dvořák reluctantly accepted and, in so doing, followed in the path of composers throughout the centuries, including Monteverdi, Salieri, Haydn and Rossini, who have been inspired by Tasso’s saga.

Although his prior opera, Rusalka, had been a triumph in Prague, Dvořák hoped that Armida would bring him international acclaim as an operatic composer. It premiered on 25 March 1904, just a few weeks before the composer’s unexpected death on 1 May 1904. For all practical purposes, the opera was a failure, and it never gained a place in the repertoire.

In crafting his libretto, Vrchlický used Tasso’s story as the inspiration for his own reimagining of the tale. The opera is set in the eleventh century during the time of the First Crusade. Facing an imminent invasion by the crusaders, Ismen, a prince and magician, convinces Hydraot, King of Damascus, to send his daughter Armida into the enemy camp to sow discord.

Armida is reluctant at first, but she consents when Ismen uses his magical powers to give her a glimpse inside the enemy camp. She yields to Ismen’s demand because one of the soldiers, Rinald, has appeared to her in dreams. Sympathizing with Armida’s plight and enchanted by her beauty, Rinald urges his compatriots to come to her aid. Impatient over their hesitation, the lovers escape the Frankish camp with Ismen’s assistance.

Deeply in love, Rinald and Armida are content to linger in a beautiful garden in the middle of the desert. Ismen calls on Armida to destroy Rinald which she refuses to do. When Ismen overhears Armida’s plans to thwart him, he conspires with Rinald’s companions to lure him away from the palace. United with his men, Rinald seeks and obtains forgiveness for his disloyalty and leads the crusaders into battle.

After killing Ismen, Rinald is confronted by a mysterious knight in black. They engage in combat, but upon hearing Rinald curse Armida, the knight drops his sword and is fatally wounded. Discovering that the dying knight is Armida, Rinald baptizes her and she dies in his arms.

In contrast to Dvořák’s colorful, exotic score, there is little to enchant in Herman’s concept for Armida. Updated to an indeterminate time, the sets are stark and minimalist, almost futuristic in their design. Herman never deviates from the libretto. Most, if not every, stage element mentioned is present in one form or another. Some are pretty basic, however, such as the swaying of fan-like green leaves and a rather disheveled potted plant to suggest a lush garden, or a plexiglass basin which holds the water with which Rinald baptized the dying Armida.

There are some more impressive stage elements, however, through which Herman imposes cohesion on the production. The spinning of whirling dervishes imparts a trancelike calm to the action, and the skeleton of a dragon transported by actors imparts both mystery and menace. A large metal circle alternately contains a statue or a gazelle or a crucifix, or sometimes nothing at all, as when serving as a portal into the souls of the protagonists.

Soprano Alžběta Poláčková was Armida. She is a compelling actress and sang Dvořák’s melodies with sumptuous sound. Aleš Briscein’s tenor and dashing appearance made for a romantic Rinald. The most powerful presence on stage, however, was baritone Svatopluk Sem’s Ismen, who captured the evil and power of the magician snared in a web of his own creation.

Patrik Čermák (Dervish) © Zdeněk Sokol

Other performances of note were those of František Zahradníček as a forthright King Hydraot and Štefan Kocán’s zealous Petr, the hermit who is the spiritual guide of the crusaders. Doubravka Součková as the Siren was captivating both in voice and presence, and Patrik Čermák embodied the trancelike aura of a whirling dervish with his serenity and graceful twirling.

Dvořák’s score contains lush melodies and soaring arias, and martial, militaristic music as well. Robert Jindra led a performance that was exciting and glorious. The brass playing was thrilling, especially when a pair of trumpets joined the fray from a balcony high above the stage. The violins sang as much as played the score’s many melodies, and a recurring theme in the woodwinds summoned up the spirit of the New World Symphony. The chorus, likewise, sang with polished tone and consummate musicianship.

Herman’s staging is provocative. Two visual elements – the crusaders costumed as priests, complete with clerical colors, and the Damascene women in burqas – are so powerful that they tip the balance from the opera being the story of a tragic romance to a polemic about the clash of Christianity and Islam. It was perhaps too bold a stroke.

Rick Perdian

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