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Jakov GOTOVAC (1895-1982)
Ero the Joker, Op.17, opera in 3 acts (1933-35)
Croatian Radio Television Choir
Munich Radio Orchestra/Ivan Repušić
rec. live, May 2019, Munich Prinzregententheater
CPO 555 080-2 [2 CDs: 111:35]

Jakov Gotovac was born in Split, the second largest city in Croatia. He started higher education as a law student, but in 1920 he started to study music in Vienna under Joseph Marx. In 1923 he moved to Zagreb where he conducted and composed for the rest of his life. This opera is his best-known work and has been translated into nine languages, and has been performed worldwide. In his works, Gotovac represents national romanticism, with Croatian folklore being the main source of ideas and inspiration. It is clear that in Ero the Joker he prefers homophonic textures and fairly simple harmonic structures, which admirably suit the folk idiom he admired.

Rather to my surprise, I have very much enjoyed this work, mainly because of its tunefulness, but also because of the excellent performance. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I purchased CPO’s other recording of his orchestral works, reviewed with some enthusiasm by Jonathan Woolf.

The action is based upon the antics of a farmhand folk character who, during the time of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, deceived the foreign occupier with many tricks, but escaped retribution by his cunning. When the opera libretto was constructed, the Ottoman involvement was removed and the setting became the back-country of Dalmatia where the composer was born. The farmhand - Mića in the libretto, manages to convince (some) of the simple peasants that he is the legendary Ero, able to perform feats of astounding magic. The composer’s own words aptly and accurately describe the music he wanted to compose:

“A folk opera should be solidly and clearly built upon folk melodies and rhythms. It should paint melody and harmony with a rich orchestra palette, and unite true folk humour with song and dance into a harmonious whole”

I was immediately taken by the opening female chorus which melts into a rather yearningly beautiful aria for Dula, where she laments her lack of a lover, and I have played it several times. The girls are in a barn working on the grain harvest for Dula’s father Marko.  Valentina Fijačko Kobić singing the part of Dula, has a nice lyric soprano voice which perfectly fits this passage. Suddenly, appearing over the top of a haystack appears Mića (Ero), who, after begging a drink of water from Dula’s cupped hands, claims that he has descended from another world, and amid much banter tells Dula that her mother sits in heaven and foresees that an unknown lover will visit her before night-time. Tomislav Muzek has a pleasant tenor voice which seems to fit these passages well.
At that point, Doma, Dula’s stepmother rushes in from labour in the kitchen, and tells the girls off for lazing around, then she notices Mića and a recitative passage follows where she orders him off the farm, but he teases her and says he wants to stay to help Dula pick apples. Eventually, responding to his warnings that her stew is burning she rushes off. Jelena Kordić sings the Mezzo part of Doma, a slightly shrewish individual, and her voice has a suitable edge. Left alone with Duma, playful interplay takes place, wherein Mića declares his love, saying that he has sent her various tokens of his affection over the weeks, and it is in recognising these, that she realises that he is her prophesied lover. She sees someone approaching and rushes off, telling Mića that she will meet him at the mill in the afternoon. Her father, the farmer, Marko, tackles Mića, suspecting him of no good, but when Mića responds with verbal wit, Marko relaxes and Mića tells him that he, Marko, has nothing on Mića when it comes to having access to the land and skies. Marko eventually tires of this sort of talk and orders Mića away. Mića agrees, saying that he will not return until he is called for. Marko is sung by baritone Ivica Čikeš, whose excellent dark voice perfectly fits the role. Doma then re-enters and asks Mića if it is true that he has come from heaven; playing her along he assents and she asks him if her first husband is in heaven, and if so, what does he feel about her re-marrying after his death. Mića pulls her leg rather cruelly, by telling her that her husband is upset at her unfaithfulness, and moreover is living in heaven in a poor beggarly state. Doma is most upset at this, and gives him gold to take back to heaven to alleviate her dead husband’s distress. Doma’s music relaxes here and the rather strident tone of her earlier entry is reduced, Jelena Kordić modifying her vocal production a little, although I could have done with more plangency, but she is mercifully free of excessive vibrato. Incidentally, it is these recitative passages and short orchestral interludes that the composer’s orchestral music most shows itself to be from 1930 rather than 1850. Her husband Marko enters and questions Doma, asking why she is looking so miserable, when she tells him that she has given all their savings to Ero, he is infuriated at her foolishness and rushes off to find his workmen to arrange a posse. The exchange of voices here is nicely supplemented by the farm girls’ chorus, and Marko’s howls of rage are splendidly done by Ivica Čikeš. In the midst of this, Dula is distraught to hear what has happened, especially that her father has offered a reward for Mića, dead or alive, and the act ends with her weeping as her father rushes off in pursuit of Mića, accompanied by his farmhands.

The second act opens at the mill, where Sima the miller sings happily as he is visited by several women asking about their grain and commenting generally on their daily activities. Ljubomir Puškarić sings the part of Sima very well, his baritone voice is easily differentiated from that of Ivica Čikeš.  Doma enters in a very unhappy mood, feeling that she has been foolish and misled. Her shrewish nature causes her to lambast everyone present, which prompts a spirited response from the women, especially when Dula is made to weep by Doma’s harshness. Sima insists that Doma leaves because of her nastiness. Dula sings a nice gentle lament, asking her dead mother why she left her to be abused by her stepmother. Sima later accompanied by the women, sings a lovely short aria sympathising with the young woman. Mića is then heard offstage, singing that he will overcome any obstacle to reach his beloved. Sima then notices a rider approaching in great haste. He is worried that it might be Marko, come to seek vengeance because Sima threw his wife Doma out of the mill. In a flurry, he changes clothes with Mića and flees to the hills. Marko enters, hot and dusty and does not recognise Mića dressed in Sima’s clothes. He asks if the rascal who has run off with his money has been seen, and Mića directs him to the hills, to where he rushes off. His workmen then enter and are told the same story by the disguised Micah, and they too run off after Marko. At that point Dula re-appears looking for her bag which she left behind. When she sees Mića she is angry with him and asks him to open the locked door so that she can leave. He won’t do it and so their exchange becomes heated as she repeatedly asks and he refuses, swearing that he loves her. When he finally opens the door she hesitates, and then, this being an opera, she changes her mind and they sing an increasingly impassioned duet, deciding to flee together. A passing shepherd boy is given a message for Marko by Mića, to say that Ero has run off with his daughter. They leave as the sound of the approaching hunt intensifies. Marko enters with Sima in custody, and threatens him unless he tells all he knows about the sneak gold thief. Sima protests that he can say no more, but then the shepherd speaks up and tells Marko of the message from Ero. At this point, the fire goes out of Marko as he laments what has happened and how he has failed to get his gold back. His anger flares up again as he threatens to shake the bones of his wife out of her body, but he begs forgiveness from Sima for treating him so harshly. Sima forgives him, and the act ends.

There is much hustle, bustle and toing and froing in this act, and consequently the love duet between Dula and Mića is quite a swift affair. Melodically, it is memorable as well as briefly ecstatic, and I rather wish that Gotovac had allowed time for it to expand rather more. Doma’s rather unpleasant character is made plain in this act, and as reproduced here, Jelena Kordić’s voice is firm if not exactly beautiful, but then she has to be able to cut through choral singing, and present a contrast to the light soprano of Dula.

The third act opens at a village fair, with individual voices singing the parts of fruit sellers and marketeers. The chorus sings a short song telling of the exploits of Simple Simon at a fair. As might be expected, the music is very rhythmic and sounds rather more modern than the chorus work in the earlier acts. Marko and Doma enter and are very unpleasant to each other, so much so that after an argument about money, she exits in a fury. Marko runs after her but is stopped by Sima, who tells him that his daughter is now living happily on a splendid neighbouring farm, and will visit the fair. At that point a nobly-dressed couple arrive on horseback and are seen to be Dula and Mića. Dula is upset because of the antipathy between her father and Mića and asks her father to relent, but he only does so when Mića is revealed to be the son of a wealthy landowner, and that he only pretended to be the penniless Ero to test Dula, to see if her love for him was true, even in poverty. Doma enters in a fury and has another bitter argument with Marko, and when she sees Mića and Dula her fury erupts again. Dula tries to calm things down and Mića returns the money and the stolen horse. Even then, Marko is distrustful of Mića and interrogates him. Only then are he and Doma satisfied and the village gathers together to celebrate the wedding.

Mića has a very nice lyrical aria, where he reveals his wealth; during it he sings wordlessly along with the chorus, and this a very memorable passage. Dula has a powerful and memorable aria where she relates the story of her youth and says that her love for her father is great and she begs Mića and Marko to make it up. The aria rises to a tam-tam and percussion capped climax, and the orchestration makes me remember once again that this opera was composed in 1935, although let me hasten to add that there is no comparison between it and the music of Bartok. In fact, Kodaly is probably a better comparison.

As the act approaches its end, Mića sings memorably of his brief imitation of the character of Ero, and this leads into a final joyful chorus and dance scene (a Kolo, a very popular round-dance form in parts of the Balkans) which once again rises to the heights. The last six minutes are an orchestra and choral tour-de-force, which brings this opera to a stunning climax.

I am not in the least surprised that it is popular in Croatia; its combination of vocal lyricism and power, orchestral and choral colour and vigour, and finally, sheer memorability make it a natural candidate for popularity.

All concerned are quite superb. The chorus sing in unison, thrillingly or meltingly as is appropriate, and each and every one of the soloists give their all, with very little sign of tiring by the end of this live production. The orchestra is vividly recorded and play extremely well, and the conductor, Ivan Repušić generates a feeling of total commitment from everyone.

The live recording is very fine, full-bodied and highly impactive with no audience noise. The production by CPO is done in collaboration with BR Klassik, and the CDs come with an impressive 147-page book containing much biographical and musical detail together with a full libretto in Croatian and English.

Jim Westhead

Valentina Fijačko Kobić (sop): Dula
Jelena Kordić (mezzo-sop): Doma
Ljubomir Puškarić (bar): Sima
Tomislav Muzek (ten): Mića
Ivica Čikeš (bar): Marko
Suzana Cesnjaj (sop): A young shepherd

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