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S & H Opera Review

Dvořák Vanda (UK Premiere), Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of University College Opera/Charles Peebles, The UCL Bloomsbury, Friday, March 26th, 2003 (CC)


British premières of works by Dvořák do not come along every day, so a warm vote of thanks should first and foremost be extended to University College, London Opera for bringing this work to the public. It is a cliché now to bemoan the lack of interest in Dvořák’s stage work, but it remains true that there is much to explore beyond the confines of Rusalka.

The present opera is based on the story of Wanda, a Polish legend (never let it be said that Dvořák’s horizon’s never extended over his home boundaries – remember Dmitrij extends the Russian story of Boris Godunov). Vanda (in Dvořák’s spelling) has a confidante in her sister Božena, to whom she reveals her misgivings about becoming queen of Poland. Of course there are love interests – on the one hand, Slavoj (who initially believes his love to be hopeless) and on the other Roderich, a German Prince whom Vanda has already twice rebuffed. Act One ends with Vanda being proclaimed Queen, having vowed to give her life for her country, should the need arise.

A husband now has to be chosen for Vanda, and a High Priest announces a contest that consists of three tasks by crossbow, hammer and lance. There are three entrants (Vitimír, Velislav and Všerad), but none succeeds. Slavoj steps into the breech and wins. However, Roderich arrives and tries to bribe Vanda with promises of lands and riches. Roderich is allowed to compete. A duel ensues between Roderich and Slavoj; the latter wins, yet spares Roderich’s life. Roderich bribes a witch to help him in his quest for Vanda – Slavoj once more threatens to kill Roderich and is stopped by Vanda. Roderich, bent on revenge, reappears with his army. Vanda’s oath to her country is now evoked, so she carries her country’s flag into battle. Vanda herself kills Roderich; the Poles beat the Germans. Vanda spends her last hour with Slavoj, appointing him as her successor. She leaps into the waters of the River Vistula. A monument will be erected to Vanda’s memory, the people sing.

An heroic plot, with plenty of scope for the entire operatic gamut of choruses, arias, duets etc. Over the course of several hours (even in this cut version), Dvořák provides a varied and beautiful score with plenty of his characteristic hallmarks (e.g. rustic clarinets in thirds, Czech rhythms; and the overture is almost a Slavonic dance!). There are some strange moments, admittedly. The music for Vanda’s sadness hardly even sounds unhappy, for example. Yet there is much light and shade in the writing, not to mention the necessary pomp for the ‘crowd’ scenes.

The star was the titular heroine, sung and well-acted by Royal Academy-trained soprano Elaine McKrill. From her biography it appears she has covered a wide variety of Wagnerian roles, even taking part in Adelaide’s first Ring cycles in 1998. Her oath to her country in Act 1 was particularly impressive. Yet she could be touching also, as in the closing scenes of the opera.

None of the other singers could really match up to Ms. McKrill, however. The (tenor) part of Slavoj is a difficult one as it requires the projection of ardent youth. Bradley Daley has sang Rodolfo (Bohème) at ENO, as well as taking part in The Silver Tassie and Nixon in China, both also for ENO. He did not seem to have the requisite projection for Slavoj, however, nor did he remotely look the part (he looked as if he would cry like a little boy when Vanda said she was going to leave him). Far more convincing was bass-baritone Paul Keohone’s Roderich. Keohone had the immeasurable advantage that he can actually look ‘hard’, perfect for Roderich’s vengeful, boastful character. As Božena, Kimberly Myers was rather thin of voice, unfortunately, as was Josie Eccles’ Witch.

Staging was evidently done on a shoe-string, but well-managed for all of that (although I for one remain unconvinced as to Slavoj dressed in a parka in Act 1). The orchestra, presumably a student one, was most exposed in the Overture, and it showed. Alas, the sound lacked depth and ensemble was often scrappy, with compromised tuning. Having said all that, I would not have missed this opportunity for the world. If only a representative of, say ENO, was in the audience, who knows what might happen?

Colin Clarke




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