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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Alfred - Heroic Opera in three acts (1870) [125:21]
Alvina - Petra Froese (soprano)
Harald - Ferdinand von Bothmer (tenor)
Alfred - Felix Rumpf (baritone)
Gothron - Jörg Sabrowski (baritone)
Sieward - Peter Mikuláš (bass)
Dorset/Bote - Tilman Unger (tenor)
Rowena - Jarmilla Baxová (soprano)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Heiko Mathias Förster
rec. Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 16-17 September 2014 ARCO DIVA UP0140-2 612 [51:18 + 73:36]
In his 1979 biography of the composer John Clapham says; "[Dvořák] wrote his Alfred on quasi-Wagnerian lines between 26 May and 19 October 1870, and having completed it he stowed it away, out of sight, realising it was a hopeless failure". Given that this performance - a recording of a live concert - is the world premiere of the complete work in its original German-language form and only the second performance ever - the first was in Czech translation in 1938 - perhaps Clapham can be forgiven for taking a punt as to the quality of this work. Hopeless failure it most singularly is not.
In 1870 Dvořák was some years into his post as viola player in the Provisional Theatre in Prague. Smetana was the principal conductor and was laying the foundations for a Czech national opera. Given his direct involvement with works as diverse as William Tell, Fidelio, Faust and La Traviata it is no surprise that Dvořák should want to try his hand at operatic form. Even today, with only Rusalka of Dvořák's eleven operas in the international repertoire it is easy to forget that he wrote more stage works than the 'father' of Czech opera, Smetana. Alfred was his first operatic essay and the only one he wrote using a German libretto. The reason for this is most probably pragmatic and financial. The libretto by Karl Theodor Körner was already over fifty years old and had the benefits of being both dramatically apt and better still, free for him to use. At the time of its composition Dvořák was somewhat in the thrall of Wagner. This resulted in him using leitmotifs to delineate characters and there is an undoubted Germanic flavour to the work. Indeed, the shadow of Wagner hangs heavy over the work. Not that Dvořák was alone in having such an influence early in his compositional career. It could easily be argued that Strauss' Guntram is even more so. Which does lead me to wonder if Dvořák's 'shelving' of this work was more political - small and large 'p' - expediency than artistic critique. With extended passages of dramatic recitative and a consciously heroic style there is little of the Bohemian character that would become so typical of his greatest works. Aside from the Act I ballet which even though set in southern England is a proto-Slavonic dance, I am not sure anyone listening with an 'innocent ear' would be able to identify the composer.
At the same time there is so much to admire here. The work is well paced; three well balanced acts that do not outstay their welcome. Undoubtedly the characters are rather 'stock' and the work lacks a central villain to introduce any sense of danger but conversely they are considerably less generic than many similar works. A couple of other observations; the eponymous hero Alfred does not appear at all until the second Act and his imperilled betrothed - Alvina - is the only significant solo female role in the work. Dvořák gives the bulk of the duets to Harald and Alvina, The greatest weakness is the sense of dramatic stasis - the work feels more like a series of tableaux - indeed more than once the work reminded me of cantatas such as Elgar's King Olaf or Caractacus rather than opera proper. That said, this is work in progress so it seems unduly harsh - as indeed Dvořák was himself on the work - to consign it to the waste-bin of history.
Which is where this important and valuable world premiere recording comes in. The good news is that it is really very good. The performance was given as part of the International Dvořák Festival in Prague as recently as September 2014. There seem to have been two performances on consecutive days and these discs are the result. The absence of any applause between Acts or at the end of the Overture implies that some rehearsal/patching sessions were involved as well. Very occasionally there is an audible audience cough but nothing to seriously disrupt the performance. Applause is left in at the very end of the work which seems slightly anachronistic. Further good news in that the Arco Diva production team have caught the performers in extremely good sound in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum. The balance between orchestra, chorus and soloists is very good. Although essentially a static concert performance the voices have been well separated. Certainly the brass particularly of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra have been especially well caught; likewise the wind are given an appealing bloom. No surprise, given the bardic nature of several scenes, Dvořák wrote a prominent harp part which is pleasingly audible throughout. As is the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno. If one was being picky you would have to say that they sound a fraction small to represent a hoard of ravening Vikings but what they lack in number is made up for by a characteristically fine focused and well-balanced tone. There are occasions when the upper strings struggle for absolute unanimity with Dvořák's tricky writing but again nothing to disappoint overly.
Conductor Heiko Mathias Förster paces the work very well. The use of predominantly German-speaking solo singers ensures idiomatic pronunciation of the text too. The only relatively familiar part of the work is the Overture. Dvořák rescued it from oblivion, revised it and renamed it as the Tragic Overture although he never heard that performed either and it was ultimately published as an Op. Posth. In this form it has been recorded on Marco Polo with Libor Pešek conducting the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. It is not absolutely clear if the revised Tragic Overture and the original operatic version are essentially identical. Assuming they are, Pešek takes a full two minutes off Förster's interpretation which is probably to the benefit of the work. The Slovak orchestra's playing is just that little bit more incisive too - both of the opening slashing chords played with absolute precision whereas the Prague orchestra live suffer from fractional lack of ensemble. After a lusty opening chorus there are a series of scenes in which the principal Danish protagonists are introduced. Especially impressive is the ringing tenor of Ferdinand von Bothmer as Harald - the invading prince. Dvořák's writing for this tenor role and that of Alvina is both extended and demanding. Petra Froese as Alvina is more tested by the writing and does not sound altogether comfortable. Indeed during the complexities of the Act II finale it sounds as though she is struggling to maintain her pitching in the thick textures. Conversely the baritone of Felix Rumpf singing the eponymous Alfred is very good indeed - youthful and virile with a very attractive voice. He makes a good foil for von Bothmer.
Another impressive aspect of the work is Dvořák's handling of the big set-pieces. Act I closes with Alvina spurning Harald's advances with the chorus in full-flight singing "Now new turmoil awaits us, we are ready to fight". The dramatic highpoint of the entire work is the end of Act II. In true 'rescue opera' mode Alfred has secretly entered Harald's stronghold disguised as a Minstrel to rescue the imprisoned Alvina. Before doing so he sings a ballad: "Man can stand a lot before the final restraint breaks, then he must risk everything, Thunder and hell will not stop him. Therefore tremble, you Danes! Bravely will the Briton stand." Not the least attention-seeking way of avoiding capture but in best operatic tradition with a single bound he is free, sweeping Alvina away to freedom and leaving confusion in his wake. Once the conventions of such scenes are accepted it makes for an exciting and actually rather impressive sequence. Dvořák had already written his first two symphonies before he essayed this opera so it should not come as a total surprise that his handling of the orchestral parts if not always refined is certainly confident.
It is not just the large ensembles that impress - Alfred makes his delayed entrance in Act II scene 1 with an extended soliloquy where he ponders the recent battle against the Danes that he has lost. This is an overtly Wagnerian passage but still an impressive one. Once again Förster proves himself masterly at pacing the scene so that it progresses from reflection to determination and ultimately to action when Alfred's loyal servant Sieward - sung by the ever-excellent bass Peter Mikuláš - enters to tell him of Alvina's capture and Alfred vows revenge. Having rescued Alvina at the end of Act II she rather carelessly manages to get herself captured again early in Act III. If nothing else this allows for more ardent wooing from Harald and equally vehement rejection by Alvina. In a separate, and again rather Wagnerian scene, Alfred and his army pray for victory in the coming battle. During the ensuing fight, Alfred defeats the Danes and Harald is captured. Alfred offers mercy but Harald chooses to die by his own hand. The opera ends with Alfred and Alvina reunited and the obligatory general rejoicing. By some degree this is the least impressive end of an act in the work.
Even allowing for that relative weakness, I think it is important to reiterate that this is a wholly enjoyable work. No, it is not a lost masterpiece; Dvořák would go onto greater things, but at the same time it is far from being the total failure the text books would tell you it is. I cannot imagine there being many other complete recordings coming along any time soon to challenge this one which makes this set's overall quality all the more valuable. The set does not come with a printed libretto but rather unusually it is embedded on both CDs as a pdf file. This is easy to save to a computer and is clearly printed in the original German with Czech and English translations. Having any libretto is better than none although personally I would prefer a traditional printed booklet. The liner is in Czech and English and includes a useful essay, opera synopsis and historical background as well as the usual artist's biographies and some pictures from the concerts. One entertaining typo says: "... the overture was performed under the title Dramatic (or Tragic) after Dvořák's death in 1905 and 1912 respectively." He wasn't dead, he was just sleeping - no that's King Arthur not Alfred (or Dvořák).
Czech opera, apart from The Bartered Bride, Rusalka and the major works by Janáček, struggles for any kind of toehold in the international repertoire. That being the case it is hard to imagine Alfred being preferred for revival before other finer works. However for those interested in Dvořák's development as a composer this is both fascinating and vital in appreciating his genius - it is important to remember that this was by far the most substantial composition Dvořák had attempted at the date of its composition. Taking that fact into account the successes of the work far outweigh the shortcomings. Exactly the same can be said of this performance - the minor flaws of execution that come with a live concert count for little compared to the confident, committed and dramatic sweep of the performance. A set all admirers of the composer should hear.