Return to Dráteník, the first original Czech opera

21 August 2022, 15:30
Return to Dráteník, the first original Czech opera

On 18 and 19 August, the tenth anniversary edition of the Olomouc Baroque Music Festival included a unique dramaturgical treat in its program – one of the most historically important Czech operas which, however, does not appear much on the stages of opera houses or music halls. This is Dráteník (The Tinker), the first original Czech opera composed by František Škroup to a libretto by Josef Krasoslav Chmelenský. It was directed by Kateřina Křivánková, with costumes and set by Sylva Marková and music by Marek Čermák, and performed by the Volantes Orchestra, the festival’s resident ensemble. Singing roles were taken up by Matúš Šimko (Dráteník/Škroup), Lenka Cafourková Ďuricová (Růžena), Vincenc Ignác Novotný (Vojtěch), Zuzana Badárová (Liduška), Aleš Janiga (Květenský), Jiří Miroslav Procházka (Lána), and Martin Vodrážka (Kůl). The purely dramatic roles of Chmelenský – the aforementioned author of the libretto – and Hranatý the guard were played by Martin Mihál. The reviewer visited the premiere performance.

Although the great 200th anniversary of the first performance of Dráteník will be in 2026, the latest production at Olomouc’s Dům u parku also commemorated another anniversary. This year it is exactly 160 years since František Škroup, the author of the music, died in Rotterdam. Since the first opera performed in Czech (in a translation by Simeon Karel Macháček) was the singspiel Rodina švýcarská (The Swiss Family) by composer Joseph Weigl from 1823 – which, coincidentally, was staged by Škroup – Czech patriots felt the desire for their own opera with an original Czech libretto. One suitable candidate was the poet Josef Krasoslav Chmelenský, who translated foreign opera texts into Czech. Ultimately, Chmelenský and Škroup began work on the first Czech song opera which they completed at the end of 1825.

A singspiel essentially combines musical numbers expressing the characters’ feelings and beliefs with spoken text that further advances the plot. From today’s perspective, the language of the period would probably strike many listeners as not only difficult to understand but even (with some exaggeration) foreign. The director Kateřina Křivánková has thus conceived the entire performance as a theatre within a theatre and has provided it with her own lines in many places. Both Chmelenský (Martin Mihál) and Škroup (Matúš Šimko) became characters who prepare the performance of Dráteník, but they lack the singer of the title role. Škroup decides to play the Tinker himself, and Chmelenský takes on the role of Hranatý the guard. It is this model of theatre on theatre that frees the director to retell the singspiel according to her own rules, without having to interfere more with the form and context of the work. Sylva Marková’s costumes and set design also suited the concept, sticking to a more historicizing line and not trying to unnecessarily update it beyond the directorial setting.

Here one should rather focus on the characters of Škroup and Chmelenský; while Škroup is rather calm and soft-spoken in the production, Chmelenský is a true eccentric poet full of ideals and enthusiasm. Martin Mihál, who played the character of the librettist, gave a fantastic performance in every respect. Not only did he manage to work excellently with the comic aspect of his character, but he also deserves considerable praise for his diction and staging of the extremely difficult text, which he delivered without the slightest hesitation. The other roles played by the singers (both Chmelenský and Hranatý the guard were purely dramatic characters) were also convincing, but they were not subject to the same demands for acting nuance as Mihál.

The singing cast was excellently chosen as well. The character of Květenský, who wants to marry off his daughter Růžena, was performed with firm paternal authority by Aleš Janiga. Particularly successful interpretively was his aria Každé zboží chová se snáze než holčina mladá, in which Janiga’s powerful but pleasantly soft and colorfully balanced baritone stood out throughout the vocal range. Mr. Lán – the father of the groom, who eventually turns out to be Vojtěch, whom Růžena secretly loves, to everyone’s delight – was the singer Jiří Miroslav Procházka. Despite his relatively small representation in the work, he also gave a very good singing and acting performance. His energetic bass in combination with his delightful grip on the drunken Mr. Lán was an ideal contrast to the serious Květensky. The character of Růžena was played by Lenka Cafourková Ďuricová, who generously used her flair for subtle lyricism. The singer’s hilarious and purposeful work with expression, tone color, and dynamics created a fragile heroine who nevertheless abounds with inner strength. Her beloved Vojtěch, conducted by Vincenzo Ignác Novotny, is an active element here. This was also evident in Novotny’s grasp of the character: more pronounced dynamic leaps, sharper changes in vocal timbre, and a kind of hard-to-describe flamboyance in his acting. Leaving aside the humorous interludes where Chmelenský speaks in his interpretation, he makes a suitable counterpoint to Růžena. The pair of serfs (the maid Liduška and the servant Kůl) performed by Zuzana Badárová and Martin Vodrážka were also well chosen. While Kůl seemed cunning and adamant and a little uncouth, Liduška was cheerful and mischievous and helped Růžena in her youthful love for Vojtěch. Vodrážka sang in ensembles where he did not have such an opportunity to excel, yet it was obvious that he was expressively balanced and intonationally precise. In terms of vocal numbers, Škroup was more generous to Liduška, as he composed a duet for her with Růžena Mne on miluje – radosti blahá! It was here that the different, but exceptionally compatible colors of the voices of both singers stood out – the light and delightfully mischievous Badárová, with her bright and fresh timbre, perfectly complemented the sweet and lyrical singing of Cafourka Ďuricová. However, the composer gave the most beautiful aria to the character of Dráteník, played by Matúš Šimko. The velvety soft color of his voice was a perfect match for the tender and poetic arias in which he remembers his father and his dear Hanička, whom he intends to marry when he returns home. Šimko’s staging flawlessly captured the simplicity and good-heartedness of Dráteník, as well as the purity of his feelings. His interpretation was tender and gentle, but not in the least pathetic.

The orchestra provided solid support to the singers and, apart from occasional minor flaws in the intonation of the brass instruments, the overall performance boasted a very high standard. Moreover, conductor Marek Čermák had a very sophisticated concept of dynamic and tempo changes, which at selected points gave the music lightness and emotionality. Special attention should be paid to the close connection between the conductor (and therefore the orchestra) and the singers. The solo performance by concertmaster Daniel Rumler was also extremely well done, while his work with tone, phrasing, vibrato, and dynamics in the lyrical aria was absolutely exemplary and perfectly accentuated its fragility. Věra Kousalíková’s cello solo was also successful, but – perhaps due to the heat in the hall, which may have affected the intonation – it lacked a satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, it was an otherwise high-quality and interpretively thoughtful staging, which appropriately enhanced the tone of the aria itself.

Although Dráteník is regarded by many as a historical landmark on the road to Czech opera in the style of Smetana, its Olomouc performance proved that it is a fully-fledged musical-dramatic work. Thus, while at the time of the creation of The Bartered Bride Škroup’s singspiel might have appeared as a conceptually and formally outdated work, from the point of view of today’s listener it is a melodically extremely rich opera with a distinctive charm and lightness. After all, it is no news that only time can reveal the true value of things. While the Czech patriots were urgently (and somewhat on their knees) trying to find a prototype of Czech opera in the singspiel or the French opéra-comique, they created a completely unique and musically varied work that is certainly worth recognition. One can only hope that the great 200th anniversary of the premiere of Dráteník will bring interest in Škroup’s work to other orchestras and festivals.

Dráteník (The Tinker): Matúš Šimko

Růžena: Lenka Cafourková Ďuricová

Vojtěch: Vincenc Ignác Novotný

Liduška: Zuzana Badárová

Květenský: Aleš Janiga

Lána: Jiří Miroslav Procházka

Kůl: Martin Vodrážka

Hranatý/Chmelenský: Martin Mihál

Volantes Orchestra

Marek Čermák – musical direction

Kateřina Křivánková – direction

Sylva Marková – costumes, set

Dům u parku, Olomouc

18 August 2022, 19:30

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