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Josef Bohuslav FOERSTER (1950-1951)
Eva opera in three acts (1899) [114:50]
Eva: Iveta Jirikova (soprano)
Manek: Kostyantyn Andreyev (tenor)
Mesjanovka (his mother): Denisa Hamarova (mezzo)
Samko: Igor Tarasov (baritone)
Zuzka: Elizabeth Batton (mezzo)
Rubac: Roland Davitt (baritone)
Wexford Festival Opera Chorus/Lubomir Matl
Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaroslav Kyzlink
rec. live, Theatre Royal, Wexford, Ireland, 24, 27, 30 October 2004. DDD
MARCO POLO 8.225308-09 [74:49 + 39:01]

Foerster was a phenomenon in Czech music. His great age meant that he spanned both the foundation of the national musical style and its emergence as a major force in European music. Already seven years old when Smetana’s Bartered Bride was premiered, he died only a few years before Martinů in the early 1950s.

Born into an established musical family, he studied at the Prague Organ School. Having married Bela Lautererova in 1888, a soprano at the National Theatre, he moved with her to Hamburg and later Vienna. In the Austrian capital she was engaged by Mahler, to appear at the Hofoper. Mahler subsequently became a good friend of the Foersters, as indeed did Tchaikovsky. After a time in Vienna the couple returned to Prague and Foerster became a professor at the conservatoire in the new Czech republic.

Despite his sojourn in Austria, Foerster, like his great compatriot Smetana, had developed extremely close links with the National Theatre. As a nine year old boy he witnessed the laying of its foundation stone, later singing in its chorus at the premiere of Smetana’s Libuse. It’s hardly surprising therefore that all six of his operas were premiered there.

Foerster attended a performance of Preissova’s play Eva at the National Theatre in 1889, and later wrote: " ... .the life of the characters, the straightforward action, the dramatic conflict, and above all the character of Eva herself, overwhelming in her emotional purity, all called for musical interpretations that must be the emotional fulfilment of everything that words can only hint at but never express."

Foerster was among the first Czech composers to produce work based on contemporary, realistic scenarios, being credited with the introduction of the so-called "village drama" concept to the National Theatre. Eva was perfectly suited to such an approach, and when in 1896 the theatre announced a competition for a new opera, he unhesitatingly put it forward as his choice. The rivals were strong; Fibich offered Sarka, whilst Kovarovic produced Psohlavci (The Dogheads). Although Kovarovic won the day, Eva was not left languishing for long, since its premiere took place in Prague on New Year’s Day 1899.

Eva is essentially a woman in the "wrong marriage". Despite an attraction for Manek, who seems mutually compatible, she eventually rebuffs him. She is convinced that he is too feeble to resist the objections of his mother Mesjanovka, who has a more wealthy bride in her sights. On the rebound Eva decides to accept an offer from Samko who, initially at least, seems sympathetic.

All is well at first and they have a baby daughter. Alas she becomes ill and Samko refuses the expense of calling the doctor to her, with fatal results. Eva is distraught and becomes increasingly disillusioned and obsessed by the dead child. Manek meanwhile persists in his entreaties to her and eventually she relents and accepts his advances, despite the fact he has married Marysa. Manek decides that whilst maintaining his wife and children at home, he will take Eva away to his Austrian farm, where they will live a dual existence.

Unfortunately for the couple Mesjanovka gets wind of affairs and is not best pleased. As lovers of Janáček opera will know, the figure of the mother/mother-in-law plays a powerful role in Czech domestic life. She journeys to Austria to confront the pair and Eva, who can bear the shame no longer, rushes off to drown in the Danube.

Although Czech audiences still hankered after out-and-out romanticism, the psychological drama of Eva did receive a warm reception, becoming a feature of the National Theatre for many years, and receiving some forty productions throughout the country. Indeed, it arguably laid many of the foundation stones for subsequent dramas by Janáček. Certainly it is the only one of Foerster’s six operas to have had any sort of performance history outside Czechoslovakia.

The musical idiom is somewhat mixed; the ensemble scenes were reminiscent of Smetana, whilst the darker episodes, such as the prelude to Act 3, foreshadow Janáček. The singers in this production are generally admirable. Wexford understandably tends to incline toward youth and inexperience in its casting, but often has the happy knack of success. Only Denisa Harmarova would elicit any criticism; not due to poor vocalisation, but simply because she sounds too young for the character of Mesjanovka. The character really needs more of the sound and feel of a singer like Nadezda Kniplova or Eva Randova. Meanwhile, the chorus and orchestra are fine and the recording is clear, albeit with inevitable stage noise.

The major stumbling block with the set is a lack of libretto or translation. This is particularly vexing in view of the score’s lack of familiarity. A decent synopsis is provided but, unlike the contemporaneous issue on Marco Polo of Mercadante’s La Vestale, there is no access to the text on the Naxos website. The competing Supraphon issue (which I have not heard) is fully documented. A great pity since this is an attractive score, well performed, and one of great interest to anyone curious about the foundation and development of Czech opera.

So – if you indulge in a snap purchase, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But try and beg a libretto from somewhere!

Ian Bailey



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