Vanda, National Theatre

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The Independent Culture

During May - the month that Smetana died - Prague's Spring Festival blossoms.

During May - the month that Smetana died - Prague's Spring Festival blossoms. Smetana's museum inhabits the old water works beside the Vltava - apt enough for a composer who immortalised Prague's river in Ma Vlast. His magnificent opera Libuse, hymning Bohemia's royal foundress, inaugurated the nearby New Czech (National) Theatre in 1882.

It was another queen, and a more northerly river, the Vistula, that consumes the heroine in Dvorak's opera Vanda, about a feisty Polish monarch who embraces a watery self immolation to save her people from German invasion. In Dvorak's centenary, Prague did its other composer proud: besides Rusalka and The Devil and Kate, his mature grand operas were both staged in Prague - Vanda at the Narodni (National), and a sporadically powerful production at the State Opera of Dimitrij, about the Russian pretender tragically thrust to prominence after the death of Boris Godunov.

Vanda, as Charles Peebles proved with the recent UCL staging at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, is powerful and affecting. It dates from the time of the Fifth Symphony and Stabat Mater, when Dvorak was fast approaching top form. Gerd Albrecht, a noble reviver of lost masterpieces, conducted yet another passionate, driven and detailed performance (he has recorded the opera).

Olga Romanko, in the full-bodied title role, impressed as the evening advanced. By the finale, which might seem absurdly melodramatic, her cool, Norma-like management of the fretful priest (the vocally strong Oleg Korotkov), her sister Bozena (the chirrupy Jolana Fogasova) and her wooer (Valentin Prolat, a Wagnerian house favourite seemingly devoid of acting talent) was superb. The Czech elder statesman Ivan Kusnjer looked lost as the German prince, haplessly directed by Vladimir Darjanin. But the sets and sharp-coloured costumes lent clarity to this rather static sub-Bellinian evening.

At the State Opera, Dimitrij fared better, in a musically exciting reading by the young conductor Richard Hein. The Austrian heldentenor Peter Svensson makes a far more be- lievable suitor than the wooden Prolat; Ivan the Terrible's widow (Lenka Smidova) and Boris's touching but doomed daughter Xenie (Jitka Burgetova) nearly hit the right nerve. Shuisky (Martin Barta), albeit short on stage presence, sang forcefully. Best was the Russian Tatiana Taslia's jealous Catholic Tsarina, fretful and sometimes strident, but a wholly apt characterisation. Michael Tarant's direction only intermittently matched some slightly misused kaleidoscopic sets.

How one longs to loose a McVicar or Richard Jones on these hardworking Czechs: what they might bring - cogent guiding ideas - would have sharpened the images of both these vividly lit Dvorak operas.

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