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Jaromír WEINBERGER (1896 – 1967)
Švanda dudák (Schwanda the bagpiper) (1927) [134.07]
Švanda – Matjaz Robavs (baritone)
Dorota – Tatiana Mongarrova (soprano)
Babinský – Ivan Choupenitch (tenor)
The Queen – Larisa Kostyuk (mezzo)
The Magician – Alexander Teliga (bass)
The Judge – Nicholas Sharratt (tenor)
The Executioner – Pavel Kozel (bass)
The Devil – Alexander Teliga (bass)
The Devil’s Servant – Sean Ruane (tenor)
Hell’s Captain – Pavel Kozel (baritone)
First Mercenary Soldier – Vicenc Esteve (tenor)
Second Mercenary Soldier – Richard Weigold (bass)
Wexford Festival Opera Chorus
National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus/Julian Reynolds
rec. Theatre Royal, Wexford, Ireland, 24, 27, 30 October 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.660146-7[65.36 + 68.31]

 

Švanda dudák (Schwanda the Bagpiper) is one of the operas which are known for a single piece of music; rarely do we hear the entire piece. In the case of Švanda dudák it is the famous polka, which has become a well known orchestral showpiece.

The complete opera proves to be a series of picaresque adventures which happen to the bagpiper Švanda, and his wife Dorota. The plot is based on a Czech play, but it is rather reminiscent of such pieces as Hary Janos and Til Eulenspiegel; all have a series of entertaining, moralistic episodes linked loosely to the character of the hero. But on closer inspection, Švanda dudák has other Czech links. The final episode takes place in Hell and the hero gets the better of the Devil; though this might call to mind the Orpheus legend, a closer parallel is perhaps with Dvořák’s opera The Devil and Kate, in which a woman is sent back to Earth by the Devil as he can’t stand her talking. And in the central episode of Švanda dudák the hero’s wife drops out of sight (and ear) and her place is taken by the Queen; a structure which is very reminiscent of Dvořák’s Rusalka where the heroine is silent in the second Act and her place taken by the Foreign princess.

With its picaresque folk plot and tuneful polka, it comes as something of a shock to discover that the opera was written in 1927 and that Weinberger was taught not by Dvořák but one of his pupils. There is, in the opera, something of a conscious exploration of Bohemia’s picturesque past. This might go some way to explaining the operas great popularity abroad and relative neglect in its homeland after the Prague premiere in 1927; apparently it has not been heard at the Prague National Theatre since 1933.

But the opera is far from a simple, folk-based number opera; it is through composed and though there are individual arias, there is a sense also of continuous narrative. Weinberger does write tunes, the famous Polka is tribute to that, but these are integrated into the fabric. So in structure it is far closer to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel than Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, though Weinberger’s musical language of course is far closer to Smetana and Dvořák. We should not be surprise that there is little of the influence of Janáček here, but what is surprising is that the musical air that Janáček was breathing did not have more of an effect on Weinberger.

The plot of the opera is relatively straightforward:-

Švanda, a Czech bagpiper, is newly married to Dorota. Dorota catches the eye of the bandit, Babinský. She refuses to have anything to do with him, so he tempts Švanda into leaving his farm by telling him tales of the wide world, how his playing can help the Queen who has a heart of ice. Švanda goes off with Babinský, but Dorota rushes after them.

The Queen’s heart has been frozen by the Magician. Švanda enters playing a polka which immediately melts the Queen’s heart. Švanda and the Queen prepare to get married, but celebrations are interrupted by the Magician who brings on an upset Dorota who proclaims herself to be Švanda’s wife. Švanda is locked up, as are his bagpipes. He is sentenced to death, but just before he can be executed it appears that the executioner is trying to execute him with a broom. Babinský appears with Švanda’s bagpipes and as Švanda plays a tune, he, Babinský and Dorota get away.

Dorota taxes Švanda with being unfaithful and he takes an oath to say that he did not kiss the Queen. Unfortunately he did, so Švanda descends to hell. Babinský tries to take advantage of Švanda’s absence, but Dorota will have none of it. To show his devotion Babinský goes off to hell to rescue Švanda; he does so by playing cards with the Devil and winning. The opera concludes with Švanda and Dorota happily back on their farm.

Weinberger uses the orchestra a great deal; his orchestration and general orchestral detail are one of the joys of this opera. There are a great many orchestral interludes and dance movements; but more than that, the general dialogue scenes are constructed with relatively unmemorable vocal lines over an attractive orchestral texture.

The performance recorded here is taken live from the Wexford Festival. Conductor Julian Reynolds shapes the opera well and his speeds are apt. Generally the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus plays well for him, but inevitably there are scrappy moments.

It is wonderfully enterprising of Naxos to have recorded these performances to allow us to get to know this opera better, so it seems churlish to complain too much. But quite how you appreciate this performance will depend on your attitude to vibrato laden Slavic voices. All the principals have substantial vibratos, which at least makes for consistency and all are very expressive in their own way.

Švanda and his wife are played by Matjaz Robavs and Tatiana Monogarova both have attractive, quite lyric voices. Robavs in particular has a lovely mellifluous baritone, but both produce quite a vibrato when under pressure. Neither role is written with any depth, but both Robavs and Monogarova do what they can to create credible characters. Monogarova gets one of the loveliest moments in the opera when, after Švanda has gone to hell, she rejects Babinský and sings of her love for Švanda.

The strongest written character is the bandit Babinský. This is written for one of those rather Slavic high tenors. Ivan Choupenitch has the voice for it, but at a price; his vibrato is so large and substantial that, for me, it became quite unpleasant at times. This is a shame because Babinský is quite a character and Choupenitch obviously relishes the role.

The smaller roles are all well taken. Larisa Kostyuk as the Queen relishes the darker, more dramatic sections when she is under the malign influence of the magician. It is here, with the atmospheric gloom that Weinberger shows he was capable of writing more than just folksy music. And when the Queen discovers that Švanda is married, Kostyuk becomes wonderfully dramatic.

In the more comic scenes, particularly the card game in Hell, we are limited by our lack of understanding of the Czech language. The production was obviously very entertaining and it is frustrating not to be able to see what is going on, especially as there is quite a bit of noise from stage business and from the dancing. Naxos provide a detailed plot summary but no libretto. This is a shame, as I feel a full libretto is almost essential to understanding this opera.

This is the first recording of the opera for some considerable time and it is lovely to have it in the catalogue, even with the disadvantages of being recorded live. But I would dearly love to hear the opera sung in understandable English with proper lyric voices. I feel sure that our appreciation of the piece would be far greater.

Robert Hugill



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