Monday, January 14, 2013


Prague State Opera
January 10
January 11

At the opera, an interwar novel inspires a social satire.

Mr. Culture is on the road this month, getting his ears tuned in one of the great music centers of Europe: Prague. This is the land of Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Martinů, the place where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787, and where the Prague Spring festival continues to draw world-class performers every year. Long known as “the conservatory of Europe,” the city has two music academies, five working symphony orchestras, three dedicated Baroque ensembles – including possibly the best in Central Europe, Collegium 1704 – and more chamber groups than one can count. Clevelanders missed a chance to see one of the best, the Prazak Quartet, when they canceled their appearance at the Art Museum in October.

The city also boasts two opera houses, a thriving modern music scene, and a first-rate roster of jazz musicians, many of whom studied at Berklee in Boston. With all that to choose from, where does one begin?

In this case, with the premiere of a new work at the State Opera, War with the Newts (Válka s mloky in Czech). A hybrid that incorporates elements of opera, musical theater, pop music and social satire, Newts is based on an eponymous 1936 novel by Karel Čapek, perhaps the greatest Czech writer of the 20th century. A political allegory cast in the form of a sci-fi novel, Newts tells of the discovery of a race of giant salamanders who are enslaved and exploited by humans, and ultimately revolt. Čapek casts an acerbic eye on capitalism, nationalism and racism, and foresees the coming shadow of Nazi fascism.

If putting all that onstage sounds like a challenge, imagine throwing in satirical commercials, a dose of heavy metal, and a postmodern score, and trying to make sense of it all. That it works is largely to the credit of David Drábek, one of the Czech Republic’s most versatile and innovative stage directors, who matches the nonstop momentum of the music with a fast-paced flow of singing, acting, and eye-catching visuals, segueing seamlessly from comedy to disaster. Costume designer Simona Rybáková adds to the effect with tall, genuinely creepy newts, who skulk about with glowing red eyes.

The weird mix of elements is totally appropriate to librettist Rostislav Křivánek’s setting: Morgan Bay, a resort town near New Orleans. Drunks at a beachside bar, exploited workers vaguely reminiscent of black slaves, ruthless capitalists – it’s all disturbingly familiar, especially when a monster storm hits, á la Katrina, and wipes out the town. Composer Vladimír Franz matches the maelstrom onstage with a tumultuous, driving score that barely stops for an occasional duet or aria, and unabashedly throws in an electric guitar when a heavy metal singer entertains the tourists.

For a visitor, Newts is at once enthralling and confounding. Without some background in Čapek’s novel and Czech opera and theater, there is no way to make any sense of this. But as a sampling of Central European culture, it’s riveting – not to mention a bit disconcerting seeing your homeland through the eyes of foreigners. It’s easy to ignore the dark side of capitalism when you live in its throbbing heart, but eye-opening to see the reaction of people still adapting to it after 40 years of communist socialism.

At the other end of Old Town, the flagship orchestra of the Czech Republic, the Czech Philharmonic, took the stage last week under the baton of Ken-ichiro Kobayashi for a roof-raising rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It was another wild mix: a Japanese conductor leading a Czech orchestra in one of the greatest German works ever written, with an opening elegy by a Japanese composer for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. This combination one can only get in a musical crossroads like Prague.

A Beethoven specialist.
Despite his Asian origin, Kobayashi is an acknowledged master of the Beethoven symphonic repertoire, which he performs regularly with the Czech Philharmonic. A member of the orchestra who happened to be in the lobby before Friday night’s performance suggested that No. 9 is not the conductor’s forte, and by the end of the evening, this critic was forced to agree.

Kobayashi’s interpretations of Beethoven are typically characterized by a careful balance in the sound and dynamics. He keeps the roiling passions of the music controlled beneath a finely detailed surface, with remarkable transparency and a full, three-dimensional quality in the sound. Perhaps most impressive, there is not a hint of foreign inflection in his interpretation; Kobayashi connects with the universality in Beethoven’s music and presents it with worldly intelligence and restraint.

The Ninth in his hands had a full-bodied, commanding character, but not much in the way of subtlety or nuance, with many of the fine points of the music lost in a surprisingly muddy sound. There was plenty of power and volume, but not much definition, with individual instruments sometimes out of balance – an overwhelming timpani in the first movement, screeching horns in the second and fourth. Overall, the music was ragged instead of crisp, and often lacking in color. The result was a performance that moved at a fast clip but never caught fire, engaging but not satisfying by Kobayashi’s usual standards.

The vocals were better, particularly from bass Matěj Chadima and soprano Simona Houda-Šaturová, one of Prague’s finest opera singers. And the Prague Philharmonic Choir, filling the empora behind the orchestra, was lustrous, earning a well-deserved ovation from the audience. Of course, this was the same audience that applauded between the movements and leapt to its feet as the final notes were still hanging in the air, leaving this critic as possibly the only person in the hall less than satisfied. But the Ninth has that effect; even imperfectly rendered, it’s one of the most moving pieces of music ever written.

And Kobayashi, who did a better job with the nine-minute neo-classical elegy by Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa, is always fun to watch. He works from a crouch, coaxing music from the orchestra with excited nods of his head and samurai jabs of the baton, and has everyone take elaborate, Japanese-style bows at the close of the concert. Shaggy-haired and wrinkled, he’s been nicknamed Indiánská babička (Indian grandmother) by the Czech Philharmonic players, who genuinely like him – not always the case with this temperamental orchestra, which has put more than a few visiting conductors through the mill.

Then there’s the Rudolfinum – one of the finest classical halls in Central Europe, with acoustics that attract performers from all over the world, including Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who launched a project to record all of Beethoven’s piano concertos live with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra there last year. One can nitpick individual performances, but the sound is so refined that hearing virtually anything in that hall is a treat. More from the Rudolfinum and other historic Prague venues next week.

For more on War with the Newts:

For more on Ken-ichiro Kobayashi:

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