OTAKAR OSTRČIL: Honzovo Království, opera; and “Calvary” Variations, for orchestra
Jaroslava Vymazalová (Princess), Ivo Žídek (Honza), Přemysl Kočí (Devil), Josef Celerin (Father), Antonín Votava (Ivan), Zdeněk Otava (Ondřej), Jaroslav Veverka (King), Milada Jirásková (Ivan’s wife), Ludmila Hanzalíková (Ondřej’’s wife)
Prague Radio Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Václav Jiráček (in the opera); Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Václav Neumann (in the Variations)
Supraphon SU 4224 [2 CD] 138 minutes
Here is a little-known opera that, like an opera by the Swedish composer Laci Boldemann that I have reviewed here, and like Ravel’s amazing L’enfant et les sortilèges, utterly bypasses the usual categories of comic and grand/tragic by cultivating instead the rich realm of fantasy and folk tale.
Otakar Ostrčil was a prominent Czech composer who has fallen into obscurity. His dates, 1879-1935, span a key moment in the history of Central Europe, for it was in 1918 that the Czech lands became part of the new country of Czechoslovakia, independent of Austrian rule. In the preceding decades, Czech writers and artists had often attempted to define a national identity for themselves, as can be heard in many works of Smetana and Dvořák. When national statehood arrived, composers took one of several paths: some modeled their work on trends within the European musical mainstream (e.g., symphonic poems in the manner of Liszt or Strauss; or neoclassicism in the manner of Stravinsky and some of Les Six), while others continued to explore ways of sounding distinctive and different in a way that was identifiably national or ethnic, for example by writing vocal music and opera using Czech texts based on Slavic folk legends. The whole story is further enriched by the fact that Prague had a substantial German-speaking population (including many Jews), and even a German opera house, the New German Theater, which is now known—after a number of name changes—as The Prague State Opera.
Ostrčil, who established himself early on as a conductor and composer, served as the music director at the Prague National Opera (i.e., the Czech-speaking house) from 1920 till his death at the age of 56. He was greatly admired for the precision of his conducting and for the open-minded welcome he gave to a wide range of repertoire, from the comic operas of Auber to a work for which he was roundly chastised in the press: Berg’s Wozzeck. His 1933 recording of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride was at one point released on CD by Naxos but seems now to have been withdrawn, perhaps for contractual reasons.
Ostrčil wrote a number of successful orchestral works and operas. Honzovo Království was the last of his operas, and the present recording is a re-release of a superlative recording made in 1954. The opera was a great success at its premiere in 1934, but Ostrčil died four months later, possibly in part because of overwork. (The often-contentious Czech musical scene during the first half of the twentieth century comes vividly to life in two scholarly books that, I should confess, I had a hand in getting published: Opera and Ideology in Prague, by Brian Locke—no relation to me!—and Bedřich Smetana: Myth, Music, and Propaganda, by Kelly St. Pierre.)
In Honzovo Království (which has been variously translated as “Johnny’s Kingdom” or “Jack’s Kingdom”), Ostrčil distinguishes himself from most Western composers by basing the libretto on “Ivan the Fool,” a quasi-folktale published in 1886 by a fellow Slav, Leo Tolstoy. The story tells of four siblings whom the Devil tries to manipulate for his own nefarious purposes. Ivan, though seemingly dim-witted, is the one who manages to out-maneuver the Devil. He ends up establishing a new kind of kingdom: one in which there are no wars and in which people who do physically demanding labor are the first to be served dinner, whereas intellectuals and nobles (people with soft, pale hands) have to be content with whatever is left over.
Ostrčil’s librettist, Jiří Mařánek, gave the story a specifically Czech twist, in part by renaming the characters: most notably, Ivan becomes Honza, a figure clearly derived from the character in many Czech folk tales known as “Hloupý Honza,” i.e., Dull Jack. (The name Honza, like Hans in German, derives from Johannes.) Honza’s brothers are now called Ondřej (i.e., Andrew) and, a bit oddly for those who know the Tolstoy story, Ivan. The fourth sibling, a mute sister, is omitted. Honza comes across here as similar to another powerfully effective simpleton in Czech culture: the title figure in Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Schweik (1921-23).
The opera is compact, taking, in this recording, only 107 minutes. The basic style reminds me at times of mid-career Prokofiev (e.g., The Prodigal Son) or the motoric ensemble scenes in Weill’s Mahagonny. On a basic musicodramatic level, the work follows certain Wagnerian procedures that had become normative for many Western European opera composers in the intervening half-century. In general, the melodic lines are conversational, requiring clear enunciation more than long-phrased breathing. There are exceptions, though, mainly in lyrical passages for Honza, the Princess (CD 2, track 3), and the slippery, multi-faceted Devil. I might recommend to enterprising lyric tenors Honza’s soliloquy that opens Scene 2.
Continuity is provided by several recurring themes and by richly elaborated interludes between scenes. (For example, the orchestral description, in Act 2, of the sadness that has gripped the kingdom because—as the Constable has just explained in spoken words—the princess is mysteriously ill: begin at 0’50”.) Passages of spoken dialogue over orchestral music, a technique known in the opera world as melodrama, depart forcefully from the Wagnerian model and help emphasize the modesty and directness of the folk-like story. (Melodrama was a technique particularly cultivated by Ostrčil’s teacher, Zdeněk Fibich.) The spirits of hell converse with the devil from all parts of the theater, using megaphones. On the recording, their speaking voices—they are trying to cook up a war in Honza’s peaceable kingdom—are made even creepier by some simple electronic reverb. (The YouTube track begins with a symphonic interlude; the conversation begins at 2’13”.)
This recording, apparently the only one that Honzovo Království has ever been granted, was made in the Prague radio studios in 1954 and was released on LP by Supraphon. (It can be heard entire, in many segments, at YouTube, but they are not arranged in any recognizable sequence.) The performance under Jiráček is vivid and presumably reflects the extensive series of staged performances that the work had received in the Czech and Slovak lands up to that point. The work was first heard in Brno, in 1934, then in Ostrava, and from 1935 onward in Prague. It was given in German in 1937 in the aforementioned German-language opera house in Prague.
The reissue of this recording on CD was made possible, according to a note in the booklet, by Astrid Štúrová-Kočí, presumably the daughter of renowned baritone Přemysl Kočí. The latter performs the role of the Devil splendidly—acting and singing all at once, all the way through, with witty understatement rather than Boris Christoff-like overemphasis. The CD release coincides, surely not by chance, with the hundredth anniversary of Kočí’s birth. What a wonderful tribute to the memory of someone who was a major artist in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia! The Czech Radio website (radioteka.cz) offers for sale, on CD or as a download, a Czech-language performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Kočí in the title role.
The other cast members come across just as vividly, including Otava, who sang his role here (Ondřej) at the opera’s first Prague production, 17 years earlier. In the meantime, Czechoslovakia had experienced almost unimaginable turbulence: occupation by the Nazis, mass deportations for forced labor in Germany, persecution of political resisters, the systematic murder of most of the Jewish population, and, in the post-war years, the expulsion of most of the German population and the beginnings of what would be four decades of repressive Communist dictatorship. I can barely imagine the many different ways that this anti-war opera may have resonated for Czechs and Slovaks in 1954.
The best-known of the singers is the tenor Ivo Žídek, in the title role. We hear him at age 28; he had been singing leading roles since 18 and would continue to expand his repertory, and to perform and record internationally, at the highest level, until age 59. His singing nicely balances secure vocal production with a serene characterization and touches of humor.
Indeed, the singing from the whole cast is light and clear, with little trace of the “Slavic wobble” that I find tiresome in many recordings from further east (e.g., Russia and Bulgaria). The spoken roles seem to be taken by professional actors: they are superbly done. The orchestra and chorus play and sing alertly. Occasionally the woodwind and brass sections are not perfectly tuned, or the brass blare a bit. The various solos for wind instruments and for violin are nicely characterized. The sound is high-quality mid-1950s mono: clear, no distortion, but with the orchestra a bit recessed instead of richly surrounding the voices. Essay, synopsis (with helpful track numbers), and libretto, in Czech and (mostly comprehensible) English. I would say that it is time for a more modern recording, allowing us to appreciate the power and wit of the orchestral writing more. (And of course some live performances, either on stage or in concert.) But, if the vocal performances did not show the detail and insight that they do in this recording, I suspect the work wouldn’t come across half as well as it does here.
The second CD is filled out with a recording of Ostrčil’s fascinating fourteen-section set of Variations for Orchestra, Op. 24 (1928), entitled “Křížová cesta,”which is translated on the CD box as “Calvary.” Other sources list the work’s title as “Golgotha.” Closer English approximations would be “The Way of the Cross” or “The Stations of the Cross.”
This mono recording of the Variations, by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Neumann in 1957, may have been the work’s first. (Like the opera, it is available on YouTube in segments. Here is the opening: “The Son of Man Is Condemned to Death.”) The sessions took place in Dvořák Hall, in the famous 1886 building called the Rudolfinum. The 1100-seat hall has fine acoustics—reflected in the good clear sound—and is the home of the Czech Philharmonic (and of many Prague Spring events). A stereo recording, likewise by the Czech Philharmonic under Neumann, was released on CD in 1990 and re-released in 1995. Carl Bauman, in the American Record Guide, at first found the work “bombastic” but, upon re-listening, discovered “various beauties” in it (March/April 1995). Each of the work’s fourteen short sections is headed with a descriptive phrase describing a moment from Christ’s last days, beginning with his being condemned to death and ending with his entombment. The booklet essay suggests that Ostrčil identified with Christ because of how he himself had suffered for the art he loved.
The musicologist Martin Nedbal has drawn my attention to the fact that there have been, for centuries now, “Calvary hills” constructed throughout Europe, including several in what used to be Czechoslovakia. A Calvary hill often consists of a cross (or three crosses) on a hill, and other markers and chapels on the way toward the hill, for pilgrims who wish to reenact and ponder Jesus’s last journey.
I found the 31-minute-long piece continuously engaging, especially when I remembered to keep in mind the titles over each of the fourteen sections: for example, in section 4, Jesus meets his mother Mary (Mahlerian sorrow, beginning with the strings alone and then broadening out) and, in section 7, he collapses for a second time under the weight of the Cross (much thrust and intensity, full orchestra). The work follows the traditional list of 14 Stations (some based on medieval legends), not the more carefully scripture-derived versions authorized by Pope John Paul II in 1991 and by Pope Benedict in 2007 (which purge, for example, the episode of Saint Veronica wiping Jesus’s face with her veil—Ostrčil’s section 6).
I am not sure I’ve yet fully grasped the variation process here, aside from a very noticeable rising motive that begins most of the fourteen sections. I was more aware of the expressive contrasts from one section to another. Still, I look forward to listening again to this remarkable case of a programmatic orchestral work that conveys a message at once religious and highly personal.
I continue to be surprised to find so many fine, even exciting musical works that are floating “out there” yet rarely, if ever, get performed in North America. I am grateful daily to Thomas Edison and his followers who perfected the medium that gives me so much joy and emotional gratification—including these two works by a composer who was to me, until now, just a name in books.
The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide. and then, lightly updated, at OperaToday.com. The current version appears here by kind permission of American Record Guide and OperaToday.com.