Saturday 19 July 2014

Dvorak's The Jacobin in Buxton

Nicholas Lester and Anne Sophie Duprels in Dvorak's The Jacobin at Buxton Festival Opera
Nicholas Lester & Anne Sophie Duprels
Dvorak The Jacobin; Northern Chamber Orchestra, Conductor Stephen Barlow, Director Stephen Unwin; Buxton Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 18 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Sparkling revival of Dvorak's village opera, reset in the Fascist era

Festival's are about exploring repertoire that is not always available elsewhere so it was a great delight to be able to welcome Stephen Unwin's new production of Dvorak's The Jacobin at the Buxton Festival. We saw the performance on 18 July 2014, with Stephen Barlow conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra with a cast including Nicholas Lester, Anne Sophie Duprels, Anna Patalong, Matthew Newlin, James McOran-Campbell, Nicholas Folwell and Andrew Greenan. Designs were by Jonathan Fensom, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth and choreography by Lucy Hinds.

It can come as something of a surprise that Dvorak wrote 11 operas, most as part of a determined effort to forge a Czech national opera. The operas vary in style from high drama to village comedies. The Jacobin, premiered in 1889, is commonly regarded as a comedy. The plot has elements common to Smetana's The Bartered Bride (premiered in 1865), the village setting with a big role for the chorus, the unwanted/arranged marriage and the return of a missing heir in disguise. Unlike, The Bartered Bride, Dvorak and his librettist Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova explore darker issues as well.

The Jacobin is an opera which crops up in the UK every generation or so, regarded as delightful by the critics it never quite catches on. Perhaps the large number of principals (seven) is a problem, but also what people regard as the uncertain (comic/tragic) tone of the libretto. Dvorak solves the first problem by ensuring that each character has their solo moment, when we get to know them better, and the style of the libretto would have been recognised by 18th and early 19th century composers with the combination of comic servants with serious aristocrats. But in Dvorak these are not archetypes but real people.

The Count (Andrew Greenan) has fallen out with his son Bohus (Nicholas Lester) following the death of the count's wife. Bohus's support for the rights of the tenants is regarded as dangerous and he flees. branded a Jacobin and married to a foreign wife (we subsequently learn that neither is true). In Bohus's stead, the Count favours his nephew Adolf (James McOran Campbell) as his heir and Adolf has encouraged the steward Filip (Nicholas Folwell) in his domination over the villagers. After a short prelude we hear the villagers at prayer and see the return of Bohus and his wife Julie (Anne Sophie Duprels). Then the action turns to the village and we see the plot from the villagers point of view with old Filip's serio-comic wooing of young Terinka (Anna Patalong). Terkinka's father, Benda the composer schoolmaster (Bonaventura Bottone) favours the match. But Terinka loves Jiri (Matthew Newlin), whom Filip regards as a seditious trouble maker. Threats of imprisonment and conscription, a musical performance to celebrate the Count's return to the village, and the sentimental recalling of a lullabye are all elements in a plot which has its clunky elements, but which is imbued with life by Dvorak's sympathy with his characters. Of the principals, only Adolf is one we never come to like. Having presented the Count as an ogre at the end of act one, in act three Dvorak's helps us to learn of the Count's pain behind his actions and come to sympathise with the old man.

Anna Patalong and Matthew Newlin in Dvorak's The Jacobin at Buxton Festival
Anna Patalong and Matthew Newlin
Stephen Unwin has re-set the opera in the Fascist era, with Filip clearly a party member and with a pair of heavies shadowing Adolf. This works well as the Jacobinism of the title is not so much a political movement as a bogey man, a nebulous thing that is feared and the new setting, whilst not laboured, made coherent dramatic sense. Anyone who saw Stephen Unwin's production of Richard Strauss's Intermezzo at the Buxton Festival in 2012 (see my review) would recognise the pared down style of Jonathan Fensom's designs for The Jacobin. There was no set as such, just a backdrop representing clouds whose bottom edge suggested the distant mountains, and a few props. But it worked, allowing Dvorak's scenes to flow and concentrating on the characters on stage.

Tall and distinguished looking, Nicholas Lester made a finely attractive Bohus (he impressed earlier this year as Rossini's Figaro at Opera Holland Park). His opening solo was the character's big moment, and Lester showed a feeling both for Dvorak's dramatic line and for the feeling of nostalgic melancholy in Bohus's love of his homeland. Anne Sophie Duprels made a sympathetic and poised Julie. Julie is a character that is only revealed gradually and Duprels allowed Julie to unfold slowly until the dramatic moment when she sang Bohus's mother's lullabye to the Count. Duprels and Lester worked well as a pair, much of the plot required them to act as a couple, and they did so convincingly, long married and comfortable with each other.

By contrast, the young lovers were eager and new. Anna Patalong made a delightful Terinka, conflicted by her wish to satisfy her father (who favours the match with Filip) and by her love for Jiri. Terinka is very much a role like Marenka in The Bartered Bride and Patalong brought just the right combination of lyricism and intensity to it. Matthew Newlin made a finely impassioned and impulsive Jiri, with just the right amount of charm. The two have a couple of lovely lyrical duets, in which Patalong and Newlin were delightfully rapturous. They brought a nice freshness to the young lovers, which acted as a suitable counterpoint to the darker elements of the plot.

This sense of contrast was also true of Terinka's father. Whilst Benda favours Terinka's marriage to Filip, he does so for the right reasons; and Benda himself is a delightful character. Obsessed by music, and amazingly prolix, Benda is a gift to any singer and Bonaventura Bottone brought him to life with sympathy and wit. The moment when Benda decides that the dreaded Jacobins (Bohus and his wife) must be all right because they are both musicians, was quite priceless.

Filip the steward seems to be of the stock operatic characters, the old man going wooing but as act one developed we came to realise that Filip was nastier, more realistic than just a buffoon. The beauty of Nicholas Folwell's performance was that he kept our sympathy even when we realised what a self-serving shit Filip was. No characters stay in focus for the whole opera and with Filip, he falls somewhat into the background after act one. But Folwell is a fine character actor, so ensured that we always knew who he has and what he was doing.

Adolf is somewhat a comic-book villain. James McOran-Campbell imbued the character with what depth he could. Though the designer gave him a riding crop, to McOran-Campbell's credit it was barely used. And it was through body language as much as anything else that he communicated. There was no big comeuppance, after the Count announces he is forgiving Bohus and has seen through Adolf's plotting, the character simply disappears.

Andrew Greenan brought real depth to the Count, coming over as highly forbidding and unapproachable in act one, but in act three revealing the human side. The scene in act three between the Count and Benda was highly sympathetic and subtle; the two old men have known each other all their lives, but their stations in life mean that they never act as equals. The result, in the hands of Greenan and Bottone were poignant and touching, as they circled round the pain the Count felt as a result of Bohus's betrayal.

Bonaventura Bottone and Chorus in Dvorak's The Jacobin at Buxton Festival
Bonaventura Bottone and the chorus
The chorus get a significant role to play in the opera, acting as characters in their own right. The Buxton Festival Chorus, chorus master Matthew Morley, were in strong form providing just the right amount of character and some lively, engaging singing. They were joined by children from the Kinder Childrens' Choir (Founder director Joyce Ellis), who were equally impressive and characterful on stage.

The opera was sung in a translation by Rodney Blumer which seemed to be a trifle old-fashioned in feel and I felt that the production would have suited something a little more contemporary sounding. The diction from the singers was excellent so that the surtitles (actually on side screens) were hardly needed.

In the pit, conductor Stephen Barlow showed immense sympathy for Dvorak's score. Much of the scoring is in the composer's familiar multi-layered textures and Barlow drew some fine playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra. At the pre-concert talk Barlow, in conversation with assistant director Ella Marchment, had talked about his fascinating with the opera since his first encounter in 1979 with the Chelsea Opera Group, and this showed in the radiant performance.

Dvorak's The Jacobin is real festival fare, and the fine and engaging performance from the Buxton Festival showed us just why it is important for festivals like this to be able to continue exploring byways.

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