For the end of this summer, the National Theatre Brno prepared a children's opera, written by the composer Evžen Zámečník under the title Ferdy the Ant (original Czech title: Ferda Mravenec), based on the story by Ondřej Sekora. The stories of an optimistic ant who "can do anything and knows everything" and doesn’t turn his nose up at “work of all kinds", however, are actually not appearing at the Janáček Theatre for first time. Zámečník's work in eight scenes won the hearts of the Brno audiences between the years 1977 and 1986 with astounding success; it helped bring a number of children to opera – the most refined form of musical theatre. Today, these already adult musicians, actors, directors, lighting technicians and many others have decided to pay tribute to the composer, who also carried out a lot of "work of all kinds" for Brno's musical life.
Zámečník's "play at an opera for both the big and the little ones", as the author himself described it, does not begin in the forest with the actual story of Ferdy the Ant and the troubles of Bug Butterfingers (in Czech: Brouk Pytlík). Before our protagonist encounters a grumpy snail on a rainy night, the individual characters – at the moment still enthusiastic theatre performers preparing a performance – will present some of the typical features of an operatic performance. The first arias, duets, quartets or music imagery demonstrating the variegated timbre possibilities of the orchestra are meant especially for younger visitors, yet they can likewise entertain their parents with their overstatement and consciously comic nature. However, it is not until the arrival of rain and painted paper backdrops with excellent lighting design that the gym hall space turns into a dark forest plantation, crumbling and swarming with all sorts of heteroptera, spiders, bumblebees, agriotes, stag beetles and other representatives of animal species of the rich insect kingdom. Once the plot of the opera moves to the woods, the director Magdalena Švecová, set designer David Janoška, costume designer Zuzana Přidalová and lighting designer Pavla Beranová fully develop their narration. Švecová chose a relatively traditional approach devoid of experimental features and remained loyal to the original, purely fairy-tale concept of the work. This concept was elevated not only by the magic stage design with rampant greenery (which by its arrangement especially in the last scene evoked Baroque theatre staging procedures) or a giant matchbox (used by Ferdy as a dwelling as well as a workshop), but also expressive costumes. Although they maintained styles and features of traditional human clothing (jackets, skirts, caps, etc.), they managed to evoke entirely naturally specific animals from Ferdy's adventures, with their looks, colours and mainly accessories. The rafters, wings or long tentacles were then clearly defining the individual animals. The only creature that needed a more expressive costume/prop was the snail. But this applied only until the moment it got out of its shell and paraded in a transparent plastic rendition of mucus and in red pump shoes on top of that. The entire show was elevated by its lighting design, which managed to change the tone of the scene in an instant and often functioned as an imaginary "wave of a magic wand" when routine opera practice turned into great art.
Although the visual component was a real sight for sore eyes, the director was not always able to make some reasonable use of the great amount of strange beetles, bees and bugs. In many cases, the insects only stayed aimlessly on the stage and filled it statically. As a photograph from the forest, that would be perfectly fine; not so much as a demonstration of the swarming of an insect community. At other times, however, the choreography was successful: as was the case of the impressive ballet scenes, fully matching the forest ecosystem, and above all the creations of female spiders threading on hanging clothes. Singing performances definitely did not lag behind the successful visual component – the excellent Andrea Široká in the role of the capricious Gwendolyn (in Czech: Beruška) managed to enchant people with sweet, carefully articulated coloraturas and also Václava Krejčí Housková set the bar high already in the first lovable duet with the no less high-quality Petr Levíček. The main soloist of the evening, however, was Tomáš Kořínek in the role of Ferdy the Ant, who showed virtually nothing to criticise – excellent diction, clear voice timbre and flawless intonation. It is only a pity that the work does not put the soloist's vocal qualities on display until almost the very end, during the last chorus "Já jsem Ferda Mravenec a všechno umím a všechno znám" ("I'm Ferdy the Ant and I can do anything and I know everything", where the transposed theme music sounds in all its strength as a final reaffirmation of Ferdy's personal victory. However, my personal favourite was Bug Butterfingers performed by Roman Hoza. The baritone singer not only performed an incredibly fluid expression, which was original in every situation – merrily cheerful here, cakewalking and lecturing there – yet still interpretively sophisticated. Hoza's surprisingly natural acting in the opening scenes of the opera also deserve mention. Although his character is deliberately exaggerated, in Hoza's interpretation the praise of the theatre and the opera did not sound convulsive and artificial, but passionate and truly sincere. Also the choir gave a good performance and its scenes gave the opera the necessary shine.
The orchestra under the direction of the conductor Jakub Klecker was united, rhythmically stable and dealt easily with the colourful and often onomatopoeic score. The conductor achieved not only a sharp comic atmosphere – wherever it was it necessary – but also kind lyricism. The particularly emotionally expressive violin solo (not only) during Ferdy's confession to Gwendolyn were an unexpected diversion from the otherwise mischievous blare of percussion instruments and the (great!) brasswind section.
Ferdy the Ant is undoubtedly a successful production both for kids and adults. It is strong where every good opera performance must have solid pillars or in the directing, stage design, singing and orchestra. It is however also true that the opera itself, probably for the sake of better understanding of soloists, does not belong to the most melodically arched works of music history. Some parts – such as the glorification of organised morning physical training, harassment of the snail for sleeping a little late, or the fascination by a tractor – belong more in the past. However, the major part of Ferdy the Ant will make children and adults happy. It could be seen and heard that the National Theatre Brno could pay adequate respect to the legacy of Evžen Zámečník.
Premiere on 22 August 2020 at the Janáček Theatre
author: Evžen Zámečník
libretto: Rudolf Žák
music production: Jakub Klecker
conductor: Jakub Klecker
director: Magdalena Švecová
stage design: David Janošek
costumes: Zuzana Přidalová
lighting design: Pavla Beranová
choreography: Martin Pacek
dramaturgy: Patricie Částková
choirmaster: Zuzana Kadlčíková Pirnerová and Valeria Maťašová
assistant conductor: Patrik Červák and Ľubomír Zelenák
assistant choirmaster: Klára Složilová Roztočilová assistant director: Otakar Blaha
Characters and cast on 22 August 2020
FERDY THE ANT: Tomáš Kořínek as a guest GWENDOLYN (LAURA): Andrea Široká
BUG BUTTERFINGERS: Roman Hoza
TRUE BUG: Václava Krejčí Housková
CRICKET: Petr Levíček
ARAMBULA: Michael Robotka as a guest
BUMBLEBEE / BUG SNIFFY JUDGE: Jan Šťáva
1st AGRIOTE: Robert Musialek
2nd AGRIOTE: Kornel Mikecz, Petr Karas
SNAIL: Tadeáš Hoza as a guest
STAG BEETLE: Jiří Miroslav Procházka as a guest 1st EARWIG: Pavel Valenta
2nd EARWIG: Ivo Musil
GOLDHEAD: Lukáš Hlavatý
LITTLE TRUE BUG: Sára Benešová
RUSHER: Vojtěch Orenič
LAY JUDGE: Milan Řihák