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
present opera is based on the story of Wanda,
a Polish legend (never let it be said that
horizon’s never extended over his home boundaries
– remember Dmitrij
Russian story of Boris Godunov). Vanda (in
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
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.
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’
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.
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.
Kimberly Myers was rather thin of voice, unfortunately,
as was Josie Eccles’ Witch.
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?