Friday, July 18, 2014

Dvorák's The Jacobin in Buxton, aka When Viktor Laszlo Went Home....

In a gloriously sunny Buxton for our Alicia's Gift concert the other day, I took the opportunity to catch The Jacobin, a little-known opera by Dvorák that the doughty festival director Stephen Barlow, the conductor, had somehow, somewhere, found and resuscitated. Here he is, with director Stephen Unwin, talking about it and how it all happened:

Result? An absolute joy - indeed with a great, warm heart. This is Dvorák in Slavonic Dances mode, glittery and foot-tappy and soulful, with a touching family twist and a subplot that was almost surreal in its clash of two worlds.

The opera ostensibly takes place in the wake of the French Revolution. Bohus and his wife Julie have come home to his Czech village, where his father is the Count. But the Count has heard, on the grapevine, that Bohus has joined up with Paris's revolutionaries and become a Jacobin, and that he intends to stir up revolution at home. Hence he's disowned him and is about to make his nephew, the evil Adolf (yes, really), heir to the title instead. He blames Julie for leading Bohus astray. Of course, he has got everything wrong: Bohus is a seriously good bloke who wants to save the people from oppression.

Cue Bohus's former music master, Mr Benda (yes, really - though no relation), who is trying to marry his daughter, Terinka, off to the corrupt, pompous but "important" Filip, steward to Adolf and the Count - but she's in love with Jiri, the only guy in the village who has a decent tenor voice. The Bendas take in Bohus and Julie, convinced that they are authentic Czechs when they sing a gorgeous duet about the wonderful music of their homeland. Meanwhile Mr Benda has written a cantata for the Count, who is about to hand over power to Adolf. The choir is rehearsing - and along come two nasty policemen to press-gang Jiri into the army, ordered by Filip to get him out of the way. "You can't do that," says Mr Benda. "He's my lead tenor! Don't you know how rare good tenors are?" And no way is he going to let them take Jiri. (This is priceless.)

The final act features a poignant scene where the two elderly men, the Count and Mr Benda, recall their long association, the days when Bohus was a small boy and Mr Benda taught him piano every day, and the Count still loved Mr Benda's music. Now the Count's beloved harp-playing wife has died, Bohus has gone and all is lost. Mr Benda is trying to pave the way for Bohus and Julie's return, but the Count will not listen. Julie must win him over herself. She plays the harp and sings the lullaby with which Bohus's mother used to sing him to sleep. The Count melts, Adolf's plot is revealed just in time, the Count finds himself surrounded by long-lost family and adoring grandchildren, and they all live happily ever after.

The production by Stephen Unwin was beautifully done, simple and sweet, with some very special qualities - the choir rehearsal with the kids mucking about, or the moment when Mr Benda reaches out to the Count and very, very slowly dares to touch his shoulder. As a whole it reminded me of something...First of all, the Count is a dead ringer for Dvorák himself. But beyond that, the costumes, the stances, the story, updated to the 1930s, seemed closer to home. Just a minute....

It's Casablanca, the sequel! 'Everybody comes to Dvorák's', perhaps....

Imagine that Viktor Laszlo and Ilse have gone home to his Czech village. Julie is blonde and elegantly dressed, with hat à la Ingrid Bergman. Filip is the spitting image of Louis - the corrupt policeman played by Claude Rains - and Adolf is just like Major Strasser. Music as consolation, support and evocation is constantly present - and it is Julie who plays it again, her song evoking the long-lost happy days that the Count - an odd and older version, perhaps, of Rick - has left far behind. So similar were they that I kept expecting the excellent Nicholas Folwell, as Filip, to say 'Round up the usual suspects' and Bohus, baritone Nicholas Lester, to stir up a Czech equivalent of the Marseillaise. There is even an Yvonne and her barman, of sorts, in Terinka and Jiri.

Terinka was a superb Anna Patalong, Anne Sophie Duprels a fulsome-toned Julie, and as Mr Benda we were delighted to see and hear Bonaventura Bottone, whom I used to see in everything at ENO but hadn't heard for years. The Count was a larger-than-life Andrew Greenan - on the grapevine I heard a story that he had stepped in at the last moment and learned the role in three days, which, assuming it's true, we would never have guessed. Stephen Barlow conducted with huge flair and energy (can't we have him at ENO sometime soon, please? He'd have got my vote to be their new music director, had I had such a vote.)

And full marks to the Buxton Opera House (see above), a Matcham theatre that feels like a miniature version of our own Coliseum, even sporting a turquoise curtain, which is what the Coli had before they refurbished it and it all went red. The opera was sung in English, too. A reasonable enough decision, under the circumstances - though Czech is a particularly awkward language for which to reset the rhythms and I would very much have liked to get my own hands on the translation to give it some finer tweaks. That is a very small caveat indeed. Basically: it's wonderful.