Opera recitals do not generally boast dramaturgical innovations. A singer, assuming countless identities on the world’s opera stages, appears in a more intimate setting with a pianist who presents himself as a soloist and who is also asked to replace an orchestra. The idea is for the singer to present what is dearest to him, what brings together the concrete circumstances of his life, his experiences, and his desires. Moreover, opera itself, intertwined with motifs that are so different and yet still desperately alike, intersects with the life stories of the composers, performers, and audience. The desire to track down all these contexts is far from compatible with the distaste of our age for any hint of epic breadth.
In the soloist’s profile and his development so far, one notes a clear tendency to cast aside the image of an almost cinematic leading lover and to devote himself to roles that might be less pleasing, but that somehow have more “rough edges”, demand deeper immersion, and offer a broader spectrum of possible interpretations, which, of course, does not exclude returns to the intimately familiar, enhanced by new life experiences. We are thus presented with the coordinates of human and artistic maturing.
Pavel Černoch first sang the role of Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio at the opening of the 2021–2022 season at the Berlin State Opera after a long break because of covid. It was a welcome chance to sing a role to which he had long aspired, in part because the sadly realistic scene of the action is reminiscent of Špilberk Castle, which stands above his hometown Brno and was long used as a prison for political offenders. Desires are another focal point of Fidelio, which had premieres of two versions titled Leonore. Firstly, there was the composer’s irrepressible desire for freedom, but in the year of the premiere of the third, revised version of the opera, such hopes were dashed in the political negotiations and on the dance floors of the Congress of Vienna. Another goal that could hardly be attained was “the blessings of marriage upon the married”; for Beethoven in his particular situation, that was something just as utopian as the liberation and ultimate enlightenment of mankind. The opera’s ending (incidentally, the words are very similar to what we find in the finale of the Ninth Symphony) extols the female liberator who achieved her desired goal by rather unfeminine means, dressed as a man and playing the role of the jailer’s future son-in-law. Florestan first gives an account of his hopeless circumstances, and in the cantabile section of the aria he explains what has brought him to such a state. Then he has a vision of Leonore as an angel leading him to freedom, although that freedom was not of this world. Florestan’s great aria does not appear until the third version of the opera, and the composer and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, the librettist for the final revision, were hesitant about whether a person facing the approach of death after terrible suffering should be given an opportunity for vocal bravura. They both probably wanted to keep the hero from descending into complete passivity. Leonore undergoes a noteworthy transformation. Having come to liberate her husband, she eventually becomes determined to free the prisoner before whom she is standing (not recognising him at first) and to remove his shackles regardless of his identity, moving beyond marital exclusivity to the universal ideal of humanity. Naturally, an audience member might wonder about the gulf between the apotheosis of a woman whose “different” courage is a departure from old stereotypes, and the prognosis of a marriage that originally arose on the basis of a traditional division of roles, as well as the question of the possibility or impossibility of Florestan returning to a “normal” life. What remains are an uplifting abstractions and the power of values that are ever and again reaffirmed, although they are difficult to realise in societies that actually exist.
The pensive, heavy-hearted Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6 (1892–3) is one of Brahms’s last piano compositions, and in it he combines burning emotion and richness of expression with the sophistication of structure that is typical of him. According to Clara Schumann, the love of Brahms’s life, and to whom the pieces are dedicated, they are “a true source of pleasure because they contain everything—poetry, passion, rapture, intimacy, and they are full of the most magical sound effects.”
It is one of history’s coincidences that two composers represented on today’s programme “encountered” each other in Prague in connection with Beethoven’s Fidelio. On 20 November 1814, just a few months after the premiere in Vienna, Carl Maria Weber performed Fidelio at Prague’s Estates Theatre. More than half a century later, in January 1870, Fidelio was heard on the stage of Prague’s Provisional Theatre, sung in Czech with Bedřich Smetana conducting. Interestingly, Der Freischütz, the German opera par excellence, takes place somewhere in the woods of Bohemia. Over the years, more than a few locations both in Germany and in this country have been suggested as the authentic inspiration for the scene in the Wolf’s Glen. Some may recall Evald Schorm’s 1967 film Left with Five Girls, in which the story is accompanied by scenes from Der Freischütz. At the beginning of the film, a majestic panorama of the mountain Ještěd emerges to the sound of French horns. Der Freischütz is widely described as a major milestone in the history of German opera, and it is also fascinating for the many rather contradictory influences it intertwines. It involves not just a more-or-less successful synthesis of various musical genres, but also literary, artistic, and ideological interpolations. Theodor W. Adorno speaks of “a hellish vision of Biedermeier miniatures” and the “immanence of blind chance” with which the hero is confronted at the moment when he fails where he was expected to shine, and his sweet idyll of woods and meadows comes to an end with the disintegration of the professional and private prospects that had given him certainty. Weber and his librettist Kind avoided the tragic ending of the original story not only with the aid of a pious pilgrim, whose verdict is yielded to by temporal power in the person of the prince, and by not having Max himself in control of the magic bullet. Another character (who is, incidentally, impressively portrayed) is required for the marksman whose bullet has gone astray to come away from the final judgement with a sentence of probation. Of course, who knows what will happen before his probation lapses. We are inadvertently reminded of Števa’s “one-year trial period” from Janáček’s Jenůfa, which is an “affair of the heart” for Pavel Černoch, who has sung both tenor roles, Števa and Laca, on stages around the world. The essence of Max’s existential crises is despair and the ridicule of those around him. Sartre realised that “hell is other people” if we are in a “closed society” where we are denied the ability to “see ourselves in the mirror of their admiring glances”. The opera is set in just such a “closed society” with its forest scenery, milieu of peasantry, and elements of horror. From this perspective, it makes no difference whether the “forest” (which in Weber’s day was no longer de facto a place where the rule of nature was unchallenged) is placed inside a hotel, a theatre, or the headquarters of a multinational company. Childish mankind is extolled but is also seemingly damned for eternity.
Weber’s Momento capriccioso, Op. 12 (1808), dedicated to Giacomo Meyerbeer, is often described as short, dazzling, lively, and brilliant, but listeners will still recognise hints of restlessness and tremors of the kind of ill foreboding that were a speciality of the future composer of Der Freischütz.
The “Narrative of the Holy Grail” from Wagner’s Lohengrin (Franz Liszt conducted the premiere in Weimar in 1850) is actually an entrance aria that was sung too late. Up until that point, Lohengrin, who is Elsa’s dream, has been a man without an identity. Apparently not even the power of the Grail can withstand a woman’s demand to know “everything” about her partner. The dream then expires with the painful insight that lofty missions are seldom compatible with the structures that enable what we call simple human happiness. Lohengrin does not become the saviour of Brabant; that is left up to the rightful heir to the throne, who has in the meantime been put under a spell. Not even the magnificent appearance of a knight with every imaginable attribute can relieve the potentates who are (or ought to be) in power of their responsibility to the state. Elsa’s jealousy, fuelled by Ortrud, her distrust, and her worries about the future of their relationship lead to a major turning point in the story: Lohengrin identifies himself and departs.
Dvořák’s Rusalka (1901) is one of the most frequently performed operas in the worldwide repertoire, and occasionally it is even granted absolute primacy. One might suspect that this is thanks not only to the work’s undeniable qualities, but also to the inexhaustible possibilities it affords to practitioners of modern Regietheater to graft dystopias of every kind onto the story of a water sprite who desires a human soul and love. The prince tends to be played as anything conceivable other than a prince. Rusalka has ended up in brothels, psychiatric clinics, sterilely tiled swimming pools, and all probably for the sake of dispensing with the poetical or fairy-tale content at whatever the cost. Even so, many productions reflect the dilemma of nature, which cannot fail to avenge its enslavement and abuse, vis-à-vis consumerism, the pursuit of pleasure that has so many under its sway, and not only persons in high positions. People in general—especially in what are called affluent societies—are not ecological, let alone permanently sustainable. “Mankind is mankind, an outcast of the elements, uprooted from the earth long ago”, says the libretto of Rusalka, and the Witch calls people killing each other a basic feature of human existence. So why should we let poetry soften the harshness of this message, so we might contemplate it properly? In the last years of his life, Antonín Dvořák was strongly inclined towards fairy tales, and there are many among us who agree with Schiller: “There is deeper meaning in the fairy tales of my childhood than in the truth that life reveals”.
Leoš Janáček could tell us plenty about the meanings hidden in folk songs and their melodies. From his piano cycle On an Overgrown Path (1911), David Švec had chosen two pieces, A Blown-Away Leaf and The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away.
Smetana’s Dalibor (1868) shocked the public and especially the critics both for its musical style, promptly attributed to Wagnerian influence, and for the profile of the main character, a highly attractive desperado, whose daring and confidence is reminiscent of a kind of heroic hubris one does not routinely encounter in Bohemia. That was one reason for the repeated revisions of the text, most of which were blamed on the old-fashioned language and the too obvious traces of the original German version of the libretto. The main stumbling block, however, was always the figure of a rebel inciting himself and (in Smetana’s conception) the nation to “new action”, a rebel who happens to be present in each of us, and yet is permanently displaced. Dalibor definitely is not a one-dimensional character restricted to swearing vengeance and sword-waving; he is not without tenderness and warmth of feelings. But closer to our way of thinking than bloody revolution are clever intrigues by which we can also (and perhaps even more effectively) get what is rightfully ours.
That recipe is much dearer to the Czech people, which also explains why The Bartered Bride is the “Czech national opera”, and not Dalibor. Of course, one might wonder whether faithful love might have been “unfailingly blessed” if “Jeník Horák”, initially so enigmatic to everyone, had not turned out to be the eldest son, and thus the legitimate heir to Tobiáš Mícha’s estate that was worth at least 30,000. However, the question “Is it believable?” does not apply to this tribute to love, for which earthly treasures are no substitute, and which overcomes all adversities for this very reason. An illusion? Maybe…
The Hulán from Smetana’s Czech Dances is also a celebration of love, even if the mood is quite different. The tune of “I loved an uhlan, loved him dearly” sounds nearly like a hymn, however the story may have turned out after “the soldiers departed”.
The conflicts escalate, leading to the horrifying conclusion once Canio, the clown of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, puts on his costume. In the introduction, Tonio, the worst villain of the story, announces the artistic aim of verismo opera, to do away with delusions and to bring to the stage “the horrifying truths of real life”. Leoncavallo, a composer and author, offered the public his own version of events that might actually have happened, thereby creating an operatic blockbuster. Often paired with its “twin”, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci began its conquest of stages around the world. The poetics of a play within a play have a nearly hypnotising effect as the commedia dellʼarte becomes fatefully entangled in a polygon of real relationships, passion, jealousy, hatred, and humiliation. The deceived husband, a clown who is an object of ridicule, becomes a double murderer, thereby de facto ending his own life as well. Nothing about this is changed by the festive mood, the pealing of bells, and the singing of birds, all of which make a colourful background for the machinery of ruin.
Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 in D flat major (1850) is comforting for its simplicity and its avoidance of any virtuosic display. The main source of inspiration for the cycle of Consolations for piano has been identified as Alphonse de Lamartine, who left his mark on Liszt’s music in other ways as well. The poem Une larme ou Consolation (A Tear or Consolation) tells of salvation found in the dregs of suffering. When the soul is immersed in solitude and shrouded in shadows, God’s voice is heard, and grief is transformed into prayer.
The recital ends with another famous operatic “hit”, the aria of the Duke of Mantua from Verdi’s opera Rigoletto (1851), a supremely “politically incorrect” song about women’s mercurial feelings, fickleness, and treachery, which one might call an obvious attempt to project one’s own personal characteristics onto the object of criticism. The carefree song is heard at the moment a curse is uttered, and at the same time the victim is preparing herself to save the object of the curse from its murderous consequences. Contrary to all expectations, the song is heard a second time, and Rigoletto, the duke’s jester, knows that he has suffered an irreversible and tragic defeat.
To conclude our brief journey from north to south with German, Czech, and Italian opera, it is enough to add that every number on today’s programme is associated with a long line of vocal legends, world-famous tenors, top performers who have left indelible, vivid, and unique impressions on the memories of audience members. Today, Pavel Černoch belongs in their company thanks to his extraordinary voice with its characteristic warmth of tone and to his breadth of repertoire, cultivation, generosity, love for opera, and artistic fervour.