Dvořák’s The Jacobin

The Jacobin – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Marie Červinková-Riegrová [Concert staging sung in Czech with English surtitles]

Bohuš – Svatopluk Sem
Julie – Dana Burešova
Filip – Jozef Benci
Benda – Jaroslav Březina
Terinka – Lucie Fišer Silkenová
Jiří – Aleš Voráček
Adolf – Jiří Hájek
Count Vilém – Jan Martiník
Lotinka – Lynette Alcántara

BBC Singers

Trinity Boys’ Choir & Old Palace Chamber Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bĕlohlávek

Kenneth Richardson – Stage director
Paula Kennedy – Surtitles

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s concert performances of Czech opera have proved a highlight of his tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and so it was with this rare revival of Dvořák’s The Jacobin (1888).

Rare in the UK at any rate (other than a Scottish Opera production in the early 1980s and one from Cambridge Opera later that decade) if not in Czech-speaking territories, where the opera seems only relatively less familiar than Rusalka. And, though The Jacobin may lack that opera’s effortless fund of melody, it is arguably a more cohesive and dramatically integrated piece such as this performance demonstrated in ample measure.

It helps that Marie Červinková-Riegrová’s libretto is perhaps the most lucid and focussed of any that Dvořák used – setting out its two interrelated strands of plot directly yet flexibly such that the evolving scenario never impedes the musical inspiration. Compared to the occasionally effortful drama of the earlier Dimitrij, moreover, this work plays wholly to its composer’s strengths – leavening its finely honed comedy with a deft pathos in a way that came naturally to Dvořák and rarely more than here. Similarly the influence of Wagner’s ‘Romantic’ operas is undeniable, but assimilated to a degree he never subsequently surpassed.

Given the easy intelligibility of the libretto as surtitled, Kenneth Richardson’s direction hardly needed to be overly interventionist – confining itself largely to distributing the singers at various positions across the front of the platform so that a level of dramatic interaction was made evident without needing to be stated as such.

Although it unfolds as the expected sequence of arias, ensembles and choruses, The Jacobin has an ease of dramatic pacing and continuity that would seem to take care of the theatrical aspect and the present account made the most of this simply by making music the central protagonist as is several times implied in the opera itself.

Certainly the cast could scarcely hope to be bettered in this repertoire. Svatopluk Sem was eloquence itself in the role of Bohuš, estranged from his father and returning to clear his name of Jacobite sympathies and claim his rightful inheritance, while Dana Burešova came into her own as his wife Julie in the haunting third-act lullaby which is the opera’s highlight. Lucie Fišer Silkenová and Aleš Voráček were no-less well-matched as the plaintive Terinka and impulsive Jiří, their mutual attraction overcoming the scheming of the egregious Filip – vividly conveyed by Jozef Benci who has few rivals in Czech character roles such as this.

Otherwise, Jiří Hájek gave a pointedly understated account of the villainous cousin Adolf, while Jan Martiník made up for the Count’s virtual absence in the first two acts with some wonderfully expressive singing as he realises his misjudgement and the opera nears its denouement – to which Lynette Alcántara made a pertinent cameo as the servant Lotinka. Special praise to Jaroslav Březina as the music teacher Benda (still a name to conjure with in Dvořák’s time): his transformation from small-minded bureaucrat to upholder of moral virtue fulfilled the role exactly as intended and underlined Dvořák’s attraction to the scenario in the first instance.

The members of the BBC Singers were in their element during the various choral tableaux, to which the combined Trinity Boys’ Choir and Old Palace Chamber Choir made an equally enthusiastic showing. Here, as throughout the opera, Bĕlohlávek guided proceedings with an unforced conviction and a tangible sense of spontaneous enjoyment. It set the seal on a memorable performance: hopefully it will find its way to commercial release, while the fact that Bĕlohlávek ceases to be the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor at the end of this season will hopefully not mean an end to these revivals – there being numerous Czech operas which cry out for such persuasive treatment.

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