Dvořák’s Jacobin returns from musical exile to delight Buxton
Bachtrack by Mark Pullinger
The charm-ometer was cranked firmly to ‘high’ yesterday evening for the opening opera of this year’s Buxton Festival. The Jacobin was an opera close to Dvořák’s heart and is full of rustic charm in its endless flow of melodies and infectious Czech dance rhythms. Throw in Frank Matcham’s charming opera house, an affectionate English translation and Buxton in full carnival mode and it was difficult not to be completely won over.
Marie Červinková-Riegrová, with whom Dvořák has collaborated on Dmitrij, provided the libretto. The plot is a mixture of politics and Czech patriotism, surrounding the story of a father (the Count) being reunited with his estranged son, Bohuš (the suspected Jacobin of the title). Adolf, the Count’s nephew and poised to inherit everything, discovers Bohuš’ return and imprisons him. A subplot concerns two young lovers (Jiří and Terinka) whose relationship is thwarted by the ambitious Burgrave, favoured choice of Benda, Terinka’s father. The opera is also a mini-study in the power music has to stir patriotic feeling and to heal painful wounds inflicted by the past. In Act II, Dvořák lets the dramatic pace completely slacken to present the choirmaster, Benda, rehearsing his charges in a cantata to celebrate Adolf’s new position as the Count’s heir. Later, Bohuš sings a great paean to music’s power, as he explains how the songs of his native land have sustained him during his years of exile. Dvořák has an unerring knack of tugging at your musical heartstrings.
Part of the opera’s charm involves a semi-autobiographical portrait; there are parallels between Jiří, the young gamekeeper, and Dvořák himself. Benda, the kindly schoolmaster, could easily have been modelled on Antonin Liehmann, who taught Dvořák the rudiments of music and also – perhaps not without coincidence – had a daughter named Terinka, with whom Dvořák sang in the choir.
Director Stephen Unwin subtly shifts the action to the 1930s, thus lessening the ‘folk’ element, whilst adding poignancy to Bohuš and his wife, Julie, as wandering Czechs, suitcases in hand, in search of a homeland. Jonathan Fensom’s designs are simple – a parquet flooring for Act III suggesting the interior of the Count’s castle – but effective. A backdrop with video of an ever-shifting cloudscape also created, through a trick of the eye, a mountain landscape. A scattering of leaves, a piano, a harp and a portrait of the Count’s wife are all Unwin requires to narrate a coherent story.
Musically, The Jacobin is pure delight and the performances here were winning. Nicholas Lester’s authoritative baritone is perfect for the role of Bohuš. His superb diction and warm, almost heroic tone made an immediate impact and he was able to spin legato gloriously in his moving tribute to the music of his homeland. Anne Sophie Duprels is a powerful actress and rose well to her key moment in Act III, where she sings the melody the old Countess used to sing (thus proving to the Count that she and Bohuš are no foreign imposters who support the Girondins). Her French accent did not always aid clear diction. Andrew Greenan, stepping in at three days notice as the Count, gave a stoic performance. Nicholas Folwell’s puffed up Burgave and James McOran-Campbell’s slippery Adolf added necessary menace.
Matthew Newlin has a lovely, light tenor for the role of Jiří, while Anna Patalong’s bright soprano and easy charm made her the perfect Terinka. Their Act I duet, accompanied by violin obbligato, was tenderly sung. Patalong would surely make a lovely Mařenka in The Bartered Bride. Benda, the bustling schoolmaster, was affectionately sung by Bonaventura Bottone, his performance a masterclass in creating a character role. There was plenty of humour in the music rehearsal where Benda conducts whilst instructing his chorus to count the beats in their rests carefully.
The chorus sang and danced with relish, especially the children’s chorus (members of the Kinder Children’s Choir). At times, Stephen Barlow could have treated the dance rhythms with a little more vigour, but the Northern Chamber Orchestra played quite wonderfully well for him, drawing out Dvořák’s endless stream of melodic invention with much affection. That affection spread throughout the theatre. This is an opera which deserves the occasional outing and Buxton have done Dvořák proud.