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Galakonzert review - Prague Music Chronicle

Saturday, 1 March 2008 - 9:16am
The French in Prague

To go to Prague to the auditorium of the New German Theatre, opened 120 ago, to listen to two works by a renowned French composer, which had been forgotten for a hundred years and which have for the first time been recorded by an Australian company and conducted by the same French conductor, is not just an effect of globalisation, but also a clear piece of evidence that music is universal. The programme started by a short opera by Camille Saint-Saëns, Hélène, composed 104 years ago for the Monte Carlo Opera, where the legendary diva Nellie Melba sang the main role. The music was played by the Victoria symphonic orchestra and Guillaume Tourniaire was the conductor.

How Czechs have gained their opera

However, let us be chronological: at first Prague had only one opera theatre. It was the Count Nostic’s National Theatre, which started its activities in 1783 and was later renamed the Theatre of Czech Estates or the Estates Theatre. There Pasqual Bondini’s company performed Marriage of Figaro, in 1787 Mozart composed his Don Giovanni for this theatre and company and later also another opera of his, La Clemenza di Tito. Later Carl Maria von Weber managed the theatre for a couple of years.
A second opera was established in Prague eighty years later. It was the Royal Provincial Theatre, better known as the Temporary Theatre, which opened in 1861. On its narrow stage, not even ten-metre wide, Smetana staged his Bartered Bride, although he had already had his mind set on something completely different, namely the National Theatre, which opened 20 years later at exactly the same place: the new building simply encompassed the old one. However, it did not bring any benefit to the theatre, as two months later it was destroyed by fire; none the less, in two year’s time the National Theatre was built again.

Anyone who has ever been to Prague knows the impressive silhouette of the National Theatre with its typical bulged roof and location on the bank of Vltava River. However, one has to look at the theatre from the back to realise that it is as narrow as the Estates Theatre, confined in the centre of the Old Town. In the 1980s the Director of the National Theatre was the legendary Angelo Neumann, who was the producer of the first performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle done outside of Bayreuth, as well as a devoted promoter of Wagner’s work. By the way, his conductor was “a” Gustav Mahler.

It was Neumann who decided to respond to the miraculous proliferation of “Czech” opera and theatre houses and provide the Prague German minority with a new, larger and more modern theatre. It was established near the top end of Wenceslas Square, in between a railway station and the National Museum. The New German Theatre opened on 5 January 1888 with Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Later, the greatest conductors and singers performed in the theatre, not only German ones, but from all over the world. When Enrico Caruso was in Prague, he sang right there. Alexander von Zemlinsky ran the theatre for sixteen years, followed by the young György Széll who was Director there for twelve years.

Then the war came and the theatre found itself in a vague position: it was on the one hand a major German theatre where prominent artists of the Reich performed (Furtwängler had the pluck to conduct there the fifth symphony by Gustav Mahler, a Jew), but on the other hand it was located right in the heart of the capital of an occupied state.

The following occupation regime imposed a deserved punishment for its deeds: after three years of freedom and avant-garde endeavours, immediately after the communist coup in 1948, the theatre was transferred under the reign of the National Theatre, was renamed after Smetana and from then on started to be treated as a second-class theatre. It became free only after it gained independence on 1 April 1992. On that day it was renamed State Opera Prague and it is run by a young, beautiful and elegant lady, Ingeborg Žádná, who speaks excellent French. And it was she who chose the French conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, who two years ago obtained the golden Diapason for recording a complete score of Grieg’s Peer Gynt staged by him and with Ibsen’s texts.
He is one of the French conductors who have a busy career abroad, yet do not get noticed by their homeland. They conduct in London, Geneva, Vienna, New York, but one does not meet them in Paris, because Parisian music institutes and companies esteem solely those conductors who speak French with a foreign accent. Only rarely, like Pierre Boulez, for instance, do they manage to return to their homeland after they win international fame. The Paris Orchestra, established forty years ago for old Charles Munch, who died soon afterwards, has not been conducted by a Frenchman ever since. The same applies to broadcasting orchestras.

If all goes well, then after the longest professional career eighty-year old Guillaume Tourniaire will be given a New Year concert in the Vienna Philharmonic, just like Georges Prêtre, ignored in France for a number of years, and all music critics will once again lament how could such excellent maestro have been ignored by his motherland...

The cycle Nuit Persane by Saint-Saëns that uses verse by Armand Renaud was composed in two versions: first in 1872, for voice with piano, and then twenty years later for mezzo-soprano, tenor, chorus, orchestra and reciter. At that time Saint-Saëns also finished two new songs and orchestra intermezzos. This gave rise to a truly charming cycle overflowing with sensuous, attractive melodies, orchestra and vocal effects and picturesque moods; I really do not understand why nobody has shown interest in it for a whole hundred years. The aforementioned Hélène, opera in one act using the composer’s libretto, that tells the story of Hélène abducted by Paris, requires more concentration from the audience, and so I will undoubtedly go back to it, when the record is officially out in June. However, today I will rather try to introduce the beauty and charm of Nuit Persane, a fairytale about two lovers divided by death.

When Guillaume Tourniaire did this cycle in Prague as part of a festive performance celebrating the 120th anniversary of the opening of the New German Theatre, i.e. the present State Opera Prague, he could naturally make use of Czech singers. He especially liked a young tenor Richard Samek, who has a far more beautiful voice than Davislim, but unfortunately at the same time suffers from a number of technical problems and is slightly imbalanced. I hope it will calm down and that his voice, being a great gift from God, will not be wasted, because such beautiful voices are very rare. He also sang Paris in Hélène; his partner there was a great young singer Christina Vassileva of Czech-Bulgarian origin who has a permanent contract with the theatre.

You may perhaps wonder why the theatre has out of the blue decided to celebrate the 120th anniversary of its establishment. The fact is that the theatre celebrated its hundredth anniversary still in the communist era and that it may not live to see its 150th anniversary, as black clouds hang over it.

First, it suffers from very unfavourable neighbours: to the left repulsive, dark beige multi-storey garages with a blind elevation were built. There is no longer a park around the theatre, which one can still see in old postcards; it was necessary to build a wide street here stretching in front of the National Museum to allow for passage to Wenceslas Square, which served as access road for tanks going on triumphant military tattoos at a time when the most progressive state establishment existed. Nowadays cars rush down this street, crushing careless tourists who are on their way to the museum or are desperately trying to find access to the theatre. The theatre is poorly visible, because to the right there is a grey bunker, built in the “modern” style of the 1970s, once a communist Parliament, now seat of Radio Free Europe. And since the radio station is a target of ongoing terrorist threats, it is surrounded by a double barrier made of concrete blocks and a cordon of heavily armed soldiers. Great environment to generate mood suitable for music experience.

This all may change completely already this year; however, the Opera’s management fears this change. There are some persons in Czech state bodies who think that there is one opera theatre too many in Prague. The State Opera has its German peccadillo in its history, and besides it competes with the National Theatre, which has been having an artistic crisis for a couple of years. That is why it is enough to raise the argument of excessive costs and do away with this largest and handiest opera house in the city. It could be done on the occasion of a general overhaul of the Museum and resettlement of the radio station, whose present building should provide asylum for a part of the museum collections. It is clear that there are many people would be eager to transform this opera building into a lucrative music-hall.

Paris knows best what this means: when several years ago the most beautiful opera house in the city, Opéra-Comique, became home to artists of that sort, the theatre was on an immediate downturn and was lost sight of. Nowadays its reputation has to be built again with a lot of effort. Those are the reasons why State Opera Prague organises new and new events, keeps inviting artists and journalists, why it draws attention to this theatre, its beautiful past and exciting future. The festive performance, full of rare and wonderful music, organised to celebrate the anniversary and backed by the French Embassy in Prague as well as your reporter, has served exactly this purpose. And if somebody feels like spending a bit of money, less than EUR 50, and acquaint oneself with the theatre’s grand past, then please go to the theatre’s web pages, buy on-line a historical album devoted to the theatre, which has an impressive extent and astounding beauty.

Piotr Kamiński