Jakov Gotovac - Ero the Joker
Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb - 2018
Josip Šego, Krešimir Dolenčić, Valentina Fijačko Kobić, Stjepan Franetović, Dubravka Šeparović Mušović, Siniša Štork, Ljubomir Puškarić, Ana Zebić Kostel, Neven Mrzlečki
OperaVision - 2018
Even in a comic opera - sometimes especially in a comic opera - there is a grain of truth that illuminates the whole work. Ero the Joker by Jakov Gotovac is one of the best known and most performed works in the Croatian repertoire and the reason for it has much to do certainly with the popular folk melodies woven through it, its status as a national symbol of Dalmatian culture and its ability to entertain, but there are also a few essential truths in the work that attest to it power to endure and remain an important work since its premiere in 1935.
The time of Ero the Joker's creation is probably significant, as is the background of the opera's libretto. The work is seeped in the tradition, culture and folklore of the dramatist Milan Begović's home, the little village in Split-Dalmatia of Vrlika. His collaboration with composer Jakov Gotovac on Ero the Joker was a timely one, Gotovac, then director of the Croatian National Theatre was also interested in working with traditional music. Ero the Joker tapped into a particular mood of popular national romanticism popular in Croatia around the mid-1930s, as it was in other parts of Europe at the time, which although short-lived has nonetheless flourished and endured.
And, as it's performed in this long-running production by the Croatian National Teatre in Zagreb, you can see why it remains popular. Ero the Joker is a simple enough pleasure that is filled with the character and tradition of Croatia, not least in the colourful costume designs, the invigorating music with its roots in tradition, and the numerous opportunities it offers for lively dance melodies. There's no need for clever concepts, but the story and its telling retains a warmth and authenticity that has been elevated to the national stage by the composer and his librettist as a national treasure.
There's more than a grain of truth too in the storyline of Mića, the son of a wealthy landowner who assumes the identity of Ero from the Other World in order to win himself a bride. The manner of his disguise is certainly deceitful, but the intentions are good - or so he manages to convince the villagers when his ruse is uncovered by claiming that love must be entered into blindly (I imagine the high spirits of the music, drinking and dancing in Act III might play a part in allowing the villagers to turn a blind eye to his scheming), but he does manage to also connect with their troubles in some way and alleviate them. (Drinking, music and dance playing a part in that as well, no doubt).
It's in that connection with ordinary people and their troubles however that the warmth and truth of Ero the Joker lies. Mića certainly preys on the vulnerabilities of the women of the village, telling fortunes, claiming to bring messages from departed loved ones for Đula and her stepmother Doma in exchange for money and favours, but he also sympathises for the troubles of ordinary people, offering them the assurances they need to find the strength to go on, for the hope that they can makes their lives different and better. The men, led by Master Marko, the husband of Doma and father of Đula are less credulous; seeing him as a vagabond and swindler, they chase him out of town, but Ero is always one step ahead of them.
As a comic opera, Ero the Joker's primary purpose is to entertain and the Croatian National Theatre production certainly achieves that. The plotting isn't particularly complicated, but the humour undoubtedly relies on the national character types and the story's roots in folklore. The production, directed by Krešimir Dolenčić, emphasises this by dressing everyone in national costumes and setting them in the simplicity of the country locations, which is hardly original but certainly effective, particularly when it comes to Act III which is filled with the most wonderful dance music, the original folk melodies elevated though the score to an invigorating finale, and conducted as such by Josip Šego.
Although character evidently counts for much when representing such types in a comic opera, the singing is also good in this 2018 production in Zagreb, and some of the singing challenges are considerable. Most impressive is Valentina Fijačko Kobić as Đula, a singer who has great experience with this role, she sings the challenging range with great clarity and emotional involvement. Emotional involvement seems to be entirely absent unfortunately in the performance of Stjepan Franetović as Mića/Ero, but his singing of the role is sure and steady, again with lovely clarity, timbre and - perhaps more important as far as that element of truth is concerned, as well as winning over the village in the final Act - with sincerity. Sima the Miller, who falls victim to Ero's scheming while escaping from men of the village is sung with great character by Ljubomir Puškarić, and the roles of Doma and Marko are capably taken by Dubravka Šeparović Mušović and Siniša Štork.
Links: OperaVision Croatian National Opera in Zabreb,