Schwanda the Bagpiper is back where it belongs at Prague’s National Theatre

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Jaromir Weinberger, Schwanda the Bagpiper: Soloists, Pupils of the Olga Kyndlová Ballet School, National Theatre Opera Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra / Zbyněk Müller (conductor). National Theater, Prague, 24.6.2023. (RP)

Jiří Brückler (Schwanda), Martin Šrejma (Babinský) and Jiří Sulženko © Ilona Sochorová

Director and Lighting – Vladimír Morávek
Sets – Martin Chocholoušek
Costumes – Sylva Zimula Hanáková
Choreography – Lucie Mertová
Videos – Michal Mocňák
Chorus master – Pavel Vaněk
Dramaturgy – Ondřej Hučín

Schwanda – Jiří Brückler
Dorotka – Jana Šrejma Kačírková
Babinský – Martin Šrejma
Ice Queen – Kateřina Jalovcová
Magician, Second Soldier – Roman Janál
Devil – Jiří Sulženko
The Devil’s Famulus, Captain of the Devil’s Guard – Dušan Růžička
Judge – Vladimír Doležal
Executioner, First Soldier – Vít Šantora

One did not have to be Czech to enjoy the National Theatre’s production of Jaromír Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper, but it would have been a plus. The Czech-Jewish composer described his most celebrated work as a ‘people’s opera’, and director Vladimír Morávek ran with that idea. From children in the audience singing folks songs to traditional Czech bagpipe music, this Schwanda the Bagpiper was a joyous celebration of Czech culture.

Morávek and his production team didn’t wait for the curtain to rise before immersing the audience in their fantastical mix of traditional and supernatural. From the moment you entered the theater, you were greeted by human-sized strutting hens and roosters. Once inside, however, the production burst the bounds of the stage, spilling out into the audience with sights and sounds that Weinberger could not possibly have imagined.

Schwanda the Bagpiper was not exactly a popular success when it premiered at the National Theatre in 1927. The opera only became an international hit after a major rework by Weinberger, when it began to be performed in a German-language version. Subsequently translated into 17 languages, Schwanda the Bagpiper received over 2000 performances in Europe and the US, including runs at London’s Covent Garden and New York’s Metropolitan Opera

The opera, however, disappeared from the repertoire when the Nazis banned Weinberger’s music in the late 1930s and, subsequently, war brought cultural life to a halt in much of the world. Weinberger escaped the horrors of the Holocaust by moving to the US in 1939 where he taught and continued to compose. His music has had a resurgence in recent years due to the growing interest in composers and artists whose voices were silenced by the Nazis. The Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper, however, have always been popular orchestral favorites.

Martin Bárta (Second Soldier), Jana Šrejma Kačírková (Dorotka) and Vít Šantora (First Soldier) © Serghei Gherciu

In the opera, the newlyweds Schwanda and Dorotka are visited by Babinský, a Robin Hood-like character with supernatural powers. Schwanda, a simple farmer with exceptional talents as a bagpipe player, is easily convinced that married life will be boring, and off he goes in search of the mysterious and alluring Ice Queen whom Babinský has described to him.

The Queen is under the power of an evil Magician, who gained control over her when she consented to the death of the Prince to whom she was betrothed in exchange for a heart of ice and a diamond scepter. Schwanda breaks the spell by playing his bagpipes and wins the Queen’s affections. He accepts her offer of marriage and kisses her. Dorotka’s sudden appearance, however, puts a wrench in the works. The Queen has Schwanda and Dorotka imprisoned, with the bagpipe player condemned to death.

Babinský rescues Schwanda from the executioner’s axe and helps the couple escape. When Dorotka questions her husband’s fidelity, he swears that he has never so much as kissed the Queen, adding that the Devil can take him if he is lying. In a flash, Schwanda finds himself in hell. With Dorotka lamenting that her jealousy is the root of Schwanda’s predicament, Babinský appears on the scene, not to comfort the distraught woman but to profess his love for her. She rebuffs his advances and somehow manages to convince him to rescue Schwanda.

Upon the promise of being reunited with Dorotka, Schwanda has signed his soul over to the Devil. Even though the Devil has acquired power over Schwanda, he refuses to play his bagpipes. Babinský, who is well known to the denizens of hell, appears and challenges the Devil to a high-stakes card game. Through magic and deceit, Babinský wins and, during the resulting mayhem, Schwanda and Dorotka are whisked home. Undaunted, Babinský goes off in search of new adventures.

Morávek and his team captured the opera’s mix of folk and occult in this wildly imaginative production. The explosion of visual elements and the juxtaposition of the natural and fantastical may lack coherency, but they do demand attention. More importantly, the audience was delighted by it all.

The folk elements were present in the blue and white traditional designs of Schwanda and Dorotka’s costumes, as well as in the furnishings and buildings of their farm. The poultry were fanciful and mostly child-friendly, as were the giant figures of kittens. Some of the natural elements, however, were menacing, especially the giant blue European hares. An imposing stag often dominated the stage but had no obvious ink to the story, and none was provided.

Tradition also reigned in the Ice Queen’s realm and the depths of hell. Costumes were fanciful but realistic. The Devil and his minions all sported imposing horns. A tiny ballerina wearing a crown flitted effortless across the stage from time to time. The fires of hell burned brightly from a hole in an intricate backdrop. Evoking both the ancient and modern, the ever-present backdrop was a mixture of the natural and the grotesque. It may have been an attempt at imposing cohesion on the production but only contributed to the visual overload.

If there is an opera that could triumph over the barrage of images, sounds and movement in Morávek’s concept, however, it is Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper with its complex, colorful, almost magical score. His style defies classification with a combination of the tonal splendors of Mahler and Richard Strauss and innovative treatment of Czech folk music. It is readily apparent why audiences once flocked to performances.

The all-Czech cast was superb. Baritone Jiří Brückler’s Schwanda had a sophisticated combination of naiveté and bravura that was matched by his equally polished and nuanced singing. As Dorotka, soprano Jana Šrejma Kačírková showed a steely determination in pursuing her errant husband. Her supple soprano had just the right bit of metal to cut through both Weinberg’s thick orchestrations and express her character’s complex emotions.

Mezzo-soprano Kateřina Jalovcová, attired in a remarkable gown with a panel of shocking lime green, captured the Ice Queen’s emotional U-turns with rich tone and remarkable sang-froid. As the Devil, bass Jiří Sulženko was as deliciously sinister as he was witty.

The only musical shortcoming of the performance was the balance between the singers and orchestra, which fell totally on the shoulders of conductor Zbyněk Müller. It was most pronounced in the opening scenes when all the singers struggled to be heard. Martin Šrejma fared the worst in his bravura Act I aria in which Babinský successfully tempts Schwanda to abandon his wife in search of adventure. Once Müller got the orchestra under control, Müller’s wonderful Babinský could be enjoyed in all his glory.

Balance aside, Müller paced the performance expertly and conducted with style. The string entrances in the Fugue were crisp and forceful. In terms of excitement and polish, the brass playing was peerless. Collectively, the chorus sang with robust tone, but as actors created a myriad of characters that enlivened each scene.

This revival of Schwanda the Bagpiper is part of Musica non grata, a joint endeavor by the Czech Republic and Germany to revive the artistic legacy of composers who contributed to the musical life of Czechoslovakia when it was an independent country between the two World Wars, but were persecuted by the Nazis on account of religion, race, politics or sexual orientation.

The morning before the performance, I had traveled the short distance from Prague to Terezin (Theresienstadt), which served as a Nazi transit camp for Czech Jews who were ultimately deported to killing centers, concentration camps and factories as forced labor. Terezin’s detainees, few of whom survived, were primarily Jewish scholars, philosophers, scientists, visual artists and musicians of all types.

Weinberger escaped that fate, but the Nazis intended that Schwanda the Bagpiper would be erased from the world’s cultural landscape. Instead, it is once again delighting audiences in this remarkable production from the National Theater where it was first performed.

Rick Perdian

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