Friday, 1 August 2014

Dvořák - The Jacobin (Buxton Festival 2014 - Buxton)

Antonin Dvořák - The Jacobin

Buxton Festival, 2014

Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Andrew Greenan, Nicholas Lester, James McOran-Campbell, Anne Sophie Duprels, Nicholas Folwell, Matthew Newlin, Bonaventura Bottone, Anna Patalong, Martha McLorinan

Buxton Opera House - 24 July 2014

There are a lot of lost or forgotten operas and they usually aren't performed for a good reason, whether it's changing fashions and taste, or the fact that they often they just aren't very good. The wonderful thing about the Buxton Festival's revivals of neglected operas is that you not only get a chance to determine whether a rarely performed work has any merit, but you can be almost certain that if an obscure opera has been chosen to be produced at the festival, it's usually because it's worth it. Dvořák's The Jacobin is, on this showing, clearly an opera worth reviving.

Musically, at least. Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear The Jacobin before (it was performed in concert version at the Barbican a year or so ago), will certainly have noted the beauty and the richness of melody in Dvořák's writing. There's more to an opera than just music however, it has to work dramatically on the stage. While the merits and pacing of the plot here are rather more open to question than the qualities of the music, the success of such a work can often depend on the interpretation and direction. In both respects, The Jacobin is traditionally in good hands at the Buxton Festival.

Stephen Barlow and the Northern Chamber Orchestra clearly relished the opportunity to explore and give full expression to Dvořák's warm melodic writing for The Jacobin. It's not the most sophisticated music, but it's full of wonderfully simple but catchy tunes that are appropriate for the content and the context. In addition to some beautiful arias and some fine multi-layered ensemble singing, Dvořák uses folk music as a basis for the arrangements, particularly the choral pieces that give it a strong national character. The influence of Wagner is not so evident here as much as Bellini, if you can imagine Bellini writing national anthems, or perhaps think of a more melodic Wagnerian flow in a Massenet style.

As a Czech national opera however, and as a comedy moreover, The Jacobin must also look to Smetana's The Bartered Bride. While it relies on many of the characteristics of the comic opera - arranged marriages to horrible old men that threatens the pure love of a young couple, dark family secrets that come to light when a long-lost family member returns - there's a feeling that The Jacobin almost tries to be too clever and risks trivialising or at least marginalising the simple mechanics of the plot for the sake of enriching it musically.

The actual plot is not the most sophisticated, operating on two main situations - one dramatic and one comic. The dramatic plotline involves the return of Bohuš with his new wife Julie back to his Bohemian hometown, where rumours have been spread of him becoming a Jacobin revolutionary during his stay in Paris. This rumour suits his brother Adolf, who stands to gain the inheritance of his father, Count Harasova, in the absence of his disinherited brother. Fully aware of the danger, Adolf ensures that his steward Filip has the stranger with false papers arrested. The comic plotline involves Terinka, the daughter of the music teacher Benda, being forced into a marriage with steward, when she is in love with Jiří. As the leading voices in Benda's choir, they use the occasion of singing rehearsals for a celebration for the Count to find a way of being together and thwarting Filip.

The choral practice takes up rather more of the opera than you might think relevant to the plot, and it seems a little indulgent on the part of the composer - Dvořák that is, as much as on the part of Benda who has pretensions to be the new Mozart. While this does give Dvořák the opportunity of writing serenades and anthemic choral pieces and blending those into the simple folk melodies and dramatic situations, it's not entirely gratuitous. Music does indeed play an important role in The Jacobin. The major resolutions are brought about not so much by revelations about identity as character. Julie's recollection (in a beautiful rendition by Anne Sophie Duprels) of nostalgic folk songs she has learned from her husband, ensure his release on the principle that they can't be bad people if they love the music of our country this much. In many ways, the music also saves Jiří and Terinka, who are indispensable to the music master.

As such, the quality of the singing is by no means a small matter in this opera, and this is a not a consideration neglected in Buxton productions either. There's a recognition that it's in the supposedly secondary characters where the real charm of The Jacobin lies and in this respect, the casting of Benda, Filip, Jiří and Terinka is perfect. Between them there's plenty of enthusiasm, bluster and good-humoured conflict. The singing is just delightful, as much in individual voices as in the blending of them (the English translation moreover working superbly in bringing together all those interweaving voices expressing conflicting sentiments. The staging, updated to a 1930s setting, was deceptively simple but worked remarkably well, Stephen Unwin focussing on the direction and interaction of the diverse characters, making them work well with one another. The Northern Chamber Orchestra were on outstanding form, showing a real feel for the drive and melody of the work, bringing it all together and showing just how wonderfully entertaining The Jacobin can be.