In a spell-binding performance, Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall in Ostrava proves to be a neglected masterwork

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Smetana, The Devil’s Wall (Čertova stĕna): Soloists, Ballet, Choir and Orchestra of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre / Marek Šedivý (conductor). Antonín Dvořák Theatre, Ostrava, 9.3.2024. (GT)

Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall © Martin Popelář

Stage director – Jiří Nekvasil
Set designer – David Bazika
Costume designer – Marta Roszkopfová
Motion cooperation – Gianvito Attimonelli, Jana Tomsová
Dramaturg – Juraj Bajús
Chorus master – Jurij Galatenko

Vok Vítkovic – Martin Bárta
Záviš – Kateřina Jalovcová
Jarek – Luciano Mastro
Hedvika – Lívia Obručník Vénosová
Michálek – Gianluca Zampieri
Katuška – Veronika Kaiserová
Beneš – Josef Škarka
Rarach – František Zahradníček

Smetana composed The Devil’s Wall during a period of declining health when he was suffering from deafness, headaches, bronchial catarrh, and memory loss. The composer wrote that his last completed opera, ‘will be an enigma’. Clearly The Devil’s Wall is remarkable for its theatrical and musical vision in is a collage of romantic energy and parody. Smetana’s score embraces polyphonic and monothematic themes from The Kiss and The Secret. The libretto tells the story of the Devil who attempts to thwart Lord of Rožmberk marriage and perpetuating his lineage. Smetana imbued the story with autobiographical elements in his longing for love, hope, personal happiness, social rehabilitation, redemption and the ‘devil’s wall’ – that was his hearing loss. To make the opera more concise, he cut 30% of Eliška Krásnohorská’s libretto (from a sketch Vok of Rožmberk by František Dvorský), mostly from the second and third acts. The premiere was a failure, mostly because the National Opera Theatre in Prague had spent most of its money on Dvořák’s Dmitri. Within a year of the premiere, Smetana was admitted to a lunatic asylum and died shortly thereafter.

Originally intended as a buffo light comedy, the opera is located in South Bohemia where the river Vltava flows under a rock formation called the Devil’s Wall – where legend tells of the Devil who sought to destroy the nearby monastery by flooding. Krásnohorská’s libretto portrays the conflict between the Church and the Devil infused with a degree of parody. However, it is more serious than any of his operas – the music offers a vision of what Smetana could have created if he had lived beyond his sixty years.

David Bazika’s sets in Act I were overshadowed by Smetana’s image projected on the walls, and these reappeared in the final act. The brief yet dramatically powerful overture hinted at what was to follow. Comically, the awkward and a little uncomfortable steward of Rožmberk Castle, Michálek, greeted the knight Jarek, who acts for Vok Vítkovic. Rarach, the Devil, appears in a monk’s clothes and clashes with the hermit Beneš, who declares that Rarach wants to gain control over him. The villagers greet the grand entry of Vok (‘Welcome home, our noble lord!’). Martin Bárta’s Vok possesses a splendid presence matched by a beautifully toned baritone and sings of his solitude ‘Only one lovely woman’s beauty touched me so’. Roguishly, Rarach now in the guise of Beneš, suggests Michálek’s daughter Katuška to Vok as his bride. However, Vok gives him little attention and wants to plan the wedding of his knight Jarek to Katuška. Now in his disguise as a monk, Rarach seeks the position of Abbot in the new monastery. Vok is upset by the news of the death of his lover, the Lady of Šauenburk, and in order to support her daughter Hedvika, sends his nephew Záviš to bring her to him (‘O, woe is me!’). Rarach now reveals his true identity and comically tries to seize the throne. The chorus of villagers sees Rarach as a wicked traitor reject him singing ‘Come quietly and safely’, despatching Rarach from the scene.

The Rarach of František Zahradníček is masterly in his evincing every aspect of the Devil’s personification of evil and lust for power. In this staging by Jiří Nekvasil, the portrayal of the Devil is revealed as one of Smetana’s finest musical characterisations whereby his Rarach is modelled on Berlioz’s Méphistophélès in the desire to tempt human souls and create chaos. Rarach’s evil is expressed by harmonies embracing dissonance together with augmented and diminished triads and a clear sense of atonality. The Devil’s music is an augmented fourth known as the diabolus in musica. In every scene Zahradníček’s Rarach is at the centre of the action whether he is tempting Lord Vok or switching into the character of the hermit Beneš.

Act II opens with the festive entry of Vok ascending the grand staircase to the castle, the devil enters and takes his throne, yet Jarek wants to keep allegiance to Vok because he wants Katuška too much and falls asleep when the devil takes control of him. In the castle, Michálek worries because he has lost the chance for Katuška to marry Vok. Assuming the form of the monk Beneš, the Devil pledges that Katuška will marry Jarek. Vok’s nephew Záviš announces Hedvika’s grand arrival (‘Like an orphaned bird’) and Vok accepts her as his daughter yet is overcome by her resemblance to her mother and begins to fall in love with her. Rarach/Beneš now asks Vok to give himself over to the church and forego marrying. Vok gives word to comply, but he is now in love with Hedvika and is unsure of her feelings for him. Vok summons the people declaring, that he will join the church as its first monk, and this can only be changed if a woman comes and tells she loves him.

The scene of Act III is dominated by the staircase leading to the monastery. Hedvika is brought to, though confused, Vok cannot tell her of his love. Záviš notices Hedvika is upset and goes to Vok suggesting he should tell Hedvika of his love. Michálek prevents him, and they draw swords, but Beneš intervenes and tells Michálek of his selfishness – Beneš forgives him, yet instead of bringing Hedvika, he takes his daughter to Vok. Rarach now appears as a shepherd with his ‘sheep’ singing ‘I am a good shepherd’, and begins ascending the stairs to the monastery, yet Beneš uses the sign of the cross and the cross bursts into flames. The Devil summons his Satanists to build a dam across the Vltava to flood the monastery. The fantastic rhythms in the devils’ dance are distorted with cross-patterns and syncopations, hinting at Liszt’s Mephisto and echoing of Smetana’s symphonic poem Vltava. Hedvika now arrives to save Vok and is helped by Beneš, who drives away the infernal powers of Rarach. Rarach exits into the auditorium, from which he watches the action on stage. The devil’s wall now collapses, and the King’s messengers arrive to announce Vok’s appointment as governor of his lands. Vok now asks Hedvika to accompany him as his wife to a foreign land. Accompanied by the exquisite harmonies of a solo harp – the beautiful heavenly singing by the ladies’ chorus celebrates Hedvika’s consent to marriage to Vok, and with a triumphant brass chorale, the countess’s entourage, castle staff and the villagers acclaim Lord Vok’s wedding.

Of the singers, the most impressive was Bárta’s Vok who had a majestic stage presence and a wonderful baritone. Smetana provided him with the finest ariosos in the opera. Zahradníček’s Rarach was outstanding – whether he was disguised as a monk or as the Devil – he was magnificent in his darkly rich bass supported by great acting. The Beneš of the bass Josef Škarka once again provided another outstanding interpretation. The Italian-born baritone Gianluca Zampieri’s Michálek was not as impressive as he doesn’t have a lot to work with, yet he exhibited a fine voice and showed the often humorous aspect of his part, while the Katuška of the soprano Veronika Kaiserová was admirable, displaying charm and distress matched with a superb tessitura, and despite few opportunities, the Hedvika of Livia Obručník Vénosová was outstanding.

Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall © Martin Popelář

This brilliant production by Jiří Nekvasil – the intendant of this company – premiered in Ostrava on 12 June 2014, and it all seemed most appropriate for this festival to present Smetana’s portrait in the opening and final scenes; whilst the staging revealed all the greatness of Smetana as a composer of world significance. The sets with the movable partitions and the staircase to the monastery were well crafted, simple and effective in ensuring the narrative concentrated on the singing and drama. There were several stunning scenes, most notably the graceful arrival of Hedvika and her entourage with her masked Venetian headpiece and all-white ceremonial dress, with the minimalist costumes in black of her aides by way of contrast. In addition, the ascent to the monastery by Rarach in his all-black costume and top hat for the confrontation with the flaming cross, and lastly, the infernal dances of the Satanists under Rarach’s command enriched the remarkable imagery. This was abetted by the costumes created by Marta Roszkopfová, especially those for Rarach, Hedvika and Vok, and the appearance of the dancers in fiendish satanic costumes was stunningly effective, enhanced by the choreography of Gianvito Attimonelli. The orchestra under their chief conductor Marek Šedivý was excellent, once more revealing that this ensemble is of outstanding international quality.

In all, this week of Smetana operas was outstanding and memorable for all those who attended the performances given in the beautiful surroundings of the Antonín Dvořák Theatre in Ostrava with its classical baroque golden interior and decorated by splendid artwork from the building’s foundation in 1919. The company has earned a reputation for regularly staging Smetana’s operas and they staged a full cycle as early as 1924 and repeated this in 1956 (when they included all nine stage works, including the incomplete Viola), and in 1984. The company is the only theatre worldwide to stage all eight operas in this 200th anniversary year, and few theatres could approach the high standards of Ostrava’s masterly staged operas. A very useful preamble to each evening’s performances were the talks in English and Czech about each opera by an Ostrava musicologist. Notably, the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre employed a double casting, and in May – marking the 140th anniversary of the composer’s death – they will repeat these Smetana operas. For further details click here.

Gregor Tassie

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