The Spectre’s Bride

The Spectre’s Bride

Anda-Louise Bogza (soprano)
Peter Straka (tenor)
Ivan Kusnjer (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony OrchestraJiří Bĕlohlávek

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 8 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The first half consisted of a relaxed and spacious account of Janáček’s Sinfonietta, the BBC Symphony Orchestra displaying its chameleon quality and producing a balance that was clear without sacrificing that slightly abrasive quality that this music demands. Jiří Bĕlohlávek never rushed the tempos, probably just as well given the over-resonant Royal Albert Hall acoustic, yet the big moments were exhilarating, the fanfares robustly delivered by three trumpet trios placed so that they encircled the orchestra in ideal balance. Also impressive were the solo woodwind contributions.

The Dvořák was a rare performance, sung in Czech, of his dramatic cantata The Spectre’s Bride, a triumph for the composer when it was premiered in Birmingham in 1885. The narrative, which describes a naïve young virgin who is seduced away from her vigil for her long-awaited fiancé by the devil and taken on an infernal night-time ride through the countryside to a ghastly fate, is one which had great appeal to the romantically inclined Victorians. Today it seems over the top – but some of the vocal writing is certainly top-notch Dvořák, and it offers soloists, chorus and orchestra some great opportunities.

Essentially, the bass soloist and the chorus narrate the story, and are given some great moments – such as the ride where the devil gradually persuades the young girl to dispense with her prayer books, her rosary, then her crucifix and finally the wedding shirts she had made for her fiancé. Ivan Kusnjer delivered his music with evident enjoyment of the text (every word audible) in his incisive and pungent bass. Yet he also has moments of commentary on the predicament of the heroine, which are written in a flowing romantic style, and delivered here with floods of generous and warm tone.

As the Devil, Peter Straka delivered his high-lying part with what appeared little effort, as it cannot be the easiest sing. He underplayed it as well, which made the drama more credible, the devil more insinuating than obvious! The virgin was sung by the Romanian soprano Anda-Louise Bogza who displayed a fine lyric voice with excellent technique, although she took a while to relax. Her opening aria and prayer were perhaps not as ideally poised as they might have been, and she inadvertently missed two lines of her initial duet with the devil shortly afterwards. She certainly rallied later; her impassioned prayer at the end – given as the virgin tricks the Devil and hides herself in a mortuary where a corpse threatens to reanimate and open a locked door to admit evil spirits – was very beautifully and affectingly sung. All three singers displayed exemplary diction.

As did the chorus! The BBC Symphony Chorus really relished singing this music, much of which either repeats or previews the bass’s contribution, almost as a reinforcing commentary. I wondered how many of the Chorus had sung in the previous Proms performance in 1991 under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, memorable for the drive, energy and overt theatricality that Rozhdestvensky brought to the piece. Under Bĕlohlávek The Spectre’s Bride was rather more subtly presented – more a morality tale than a gothic horror – an equally valid presentation, and maybe the more authentic. Certainly under Bĕlohlávek the beauty of the orchestration and the many original orchestral touches were beautifully. Again the woodwinds, particularly the oboist, showed their considerable prowess.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 17 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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