Opera The Monument: a powerful drama without much emotion

8 February 2020, 18:00
Opera The Monument: a powerful drama without much emotion

Director, librettist and stage designer David Radok and composer, but also chief conductor of the opera ensemble Marko Ivanović created the authorial work for the opera ensemble of the National Theatre Brno. The opera The Monument, which was premiered yesterday, tells the story of sculptor Otakar Švec (1892–1955), whose design in 1955 was a portent of Stalin's monument at Letná. The title roles in the Janáček Theatre were performed by: Stanislav Sem (Sculptor), Markéta Cukrová (Wife), Roman Hoza (Colleague) and Ondřej Koplík (Minister of Culture). The solo parts were complemented by the Opera Choir, the Czech Academic Choir and the Brno Children's Choir. The Janáček Opera Orchestra was directed by the author of the music Marko Ivanović.

The theme of the opera is an internal ethical dialogue and the tragic fate of a sculptor and artist. Švec was compulsorily participating in the design contest for the memorial of Josif Stalin and won it unintentionally. He committed suicide shortly before the monument was unveiled. The opera chronologically depicts events from the announcement of the 1949 megalomaniac competition until the tearing down of the monument in 1962; everything is arranged in one act and eleven scenes.

monument_01_foto_Marek Olbrzymek

David Radok conceives the historical substance rather realistically and his grasp is more traditional, devoid of experiments with the form of narration or time manipulation. The librettist aims to carefully depict the moods and atmosphere of the 1950s and more broadly of any totalitarian society. The libretto does not contain a single personal name and the direction aims towards a super-realistic depiction. In addition to certain realism, Radok's direction contains even surrealistic moments, evoked by everyday reality brought ad absurdum. In the close neighbourhood of both great and small histories, very oppressive in The Monument in every way, the ever-repeated banalities are unduly accentuated. And nowadays may even sound superficial. The eye of an imaginary camera covers all the events on the stage as equal, and so the audience was equally exposed to the jingle of dishes alongside fatal political repression. Positively unusual is the length of the opera, which consists of only eighty minutes divided into eleven scenes. However, it would be wrong to assume a swift progress in this case. Certain rigidity of the action, images and scene was evident all the time. The backdrops (separating the space between "inside" and "outside") were sophisticated and often took place in complete silence. An empty scene free of any movement or presence of characters was no exception. Although the story depicted one of the most shattering times in the history of the country and an unmistakable inner drama of the artist, the stage remained devoid of remarkable emotions. The director thus avoided inappropriate pathos in his depiction of historical facts (death of the sculptor), and at times succeeded in achieving monumentality in the opposite way (the song  "Bude zima bude mráz" ["It Will be Cold, It Will Be Freezing"] instead of an inner confession). Impressive is the work with a hint – instead of a 15-meter statue on the stage, there is J.V. Stalin's thumb, and after a devastating explosion there is a mere index smoke from the collapsing monument.     

monument_02_foto_Marek Olbrzymek

The music of Marko Ivanović was betting on atmosphere and soundness, already in the first minutes there were mood-setting suggestive uproars and noises. Adhering to the intent of David Radok, the music did not refer to any particular period and concentrated on communicating the appropriate moods. These, however, alternated with high frequency. The resulting impression was fragmented in places, which was also contributed to by the blending of replicas of characters and choruses. A certain minimalism in the instrumentation was obvious – almost never the instrument groups sounded at the same time, on the contrary, the solos of the wind and percussion sections were numerous. All this had a great impact on the resulting impression - the opera experience was unusually intimate and unpretentious on the vast stage of Janáček Theatre. The singing role was divided among thirteen solo characters, most of their expression  was recitatively syllabic, and due to the short duration of the opera, the title roles of Svatopluk Sem and Markéta Cukrová did not get as much space as their briefly performed flawless performance deserved. Roman Hoza and Ondřej Koplík showed themselves on the stage for a slightly longer time – a positive fact is that even here the libretto did not adapt to external conditions. Although roles were tailored to the ensemble, the authenticity of the characters was the main and successfully achieved goal. One of the strongest musical aspects of the work consisted in the choruses, several times a capella, in which the Children's Choir Brno repeatedly excelled. The crowd of sculptors was old vocal polyphony (fourth picture), Latin singing in the church (eighth picture) created an atmosphere functionally contrasting with the rest of the opera.                   

Although the opera depicts the inner struggle of the main character, there is no real conflict reached in the story. Even without extensive inner monologues, it is clear at any moment what position each character takes and where it is heading to. The performance thus remained the announced description of the atmosphere of the era, the setting of which is not doubtable particularly due to costumes, hints in the libretto and rhetoric of the characters. The performance is dominated by low contrast and gray tones with occasional red accents. Although the processing of the facts has been done in a high-flying and authentic manner in all respects, it does not, in my opinion, bring any new insight into the issue that is commonly depicted in gray with a dose of absurdity. The resulting message was both predictable and unambiguous (the spectators were given very little space for their own interpretation), and hence in accordance with its formal eleven-fold variation.

The Monument

Premiere on 7th February 2020 at Janáček Theatre

author: Marko Ivanović

conductor: Marko Ivanović

stage design: David Radok

costumes: Zuzana Ježková

lighting design: Přemysl Janda

choirmasters: Pavel Koňárek, Michal Vajda and Valeria Maťašová

Sculptor: Svatopluk Sem (guest)

Wife: Markéta Cukrová (guest)

Colleague: Roman Hoza

Minister of Culture: Ondřej Koplík

Secretary: David Nykl

Wife of the 1st Secretary: Martina Mádlová

Lover: Tereza Kyzlinková

Singer: Andrea Široká

Secret Man 1: Igor Loškár

Secret Man 2: Petr Levíček

Deputy Minister: Pavel Valenta

Deputy Minister: Petr Karas

Sculptor: Martin Novotný

photo by Marek Olbrzymek

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