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Galakonzert review - Prague Post

Wednesday, 6 February 2008 - 9:29am

Note Worthy 

For the first time in more than 100 years, Camille Saint-Saëns’ one-act opera Hélène will get a public airing next week, though not in the composer’s native Paris. The Prague State Opera is staging a concert performance of the work, along with the song cycle Nuit Persane, another long-lost Saint-Saëns piece.

The event marks not just a musical milestone, but a historic occasion for the State Opera, which is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. Opened in 1888 as the New German Theater, the State Opera has weathered a remarkable series of storms and changes in management and direction over its lifetime, which in many ways mirror the history of the city itself. Through it all, the house has stood strong as Prague’s key (and sometimes only) venue for work by foreign composers ranging from Richard Wagner to Scott Joplin.

“Many significant conductors have been invited to this theater and a lot of world premieres played here,” says Ingeborg Žádná, head of the theater’s opera department.

“When I tell people in other countries where I’m working, they say, ‘Oh, you mean where [Gustav] Mahler and [Alexander] Zemlinsky were?’ ” says Guillaume Tourniaire, the State Opera’s chief conductor and music director. “This house is an important part of the cultural heritage not just of Prague, but of Europe.”

But the State Opera has fallen on hard times. With funding slashed by the Culture Ministry to just 140 million Kč ($8 million, or less than one-third of the state funds the National Theater receives), it will unveil only one new opera production this season — Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, scheduled for a May 29 premiere. The ballet company is offering a dance treatment of Phantom of the Opera in April, but otherwise the few events outside of the repertoire are reprises, one-offs or short runs like the Saint-Saëns bill, which will get three performances.

“It’s quite a critical situation — state funding is half our budget,” Žádná says. “A year ago, we asked the ministry not to reduce it. They said, just don’t do any premieres, it’s not necessary. But of course it’s very important for the theater to offer new productions.”

The State Opera labors in the shadow of the National Theater in other respects, perhaps the most important of them intangible. Charged with performing and perpetuating the Czech canon, the National Theater gets the big money, the big names and the prestige that comes with being the cultural cornerstone of the nation. The State Opera, with its tradition of foreign programming and penchant for risk-taking, is regarded as something of a weak sister in Prague, the junior house that gets an occasional pat on the head but no money or respect.

“I think the State Opera is regarded as much more important outside of the country than it is here,” Tourniaire says. “It’s a shame. People should be really proud of what they have at the State Opera.”

Turbulent history

When the New German Theater opened its doors Jan. 5, 1888, with a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, it represented a triumph for Prague’s German community, which had raised an enormous amount of private money to build a showcase for German drama and music. Still, the theater was nothing if not cosmopolitan: There were also generous helpings of operas by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Debussy.

The first director of the theater, the legendary Angelo Neumann, brought in Mahler as his music director. He was later followed by Zemlinsky and George Széll. The list of famous performers who have graced the stage is long, and includes names such as Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak and Marie Gutheil-Schoder. Richard Strauss conducted Salome and Der Rosenkavalier there. Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland had its world premiere in 1903 at the State Opera, which has also staged dozens of Prague premieres of important operas over the past century.

In 1938, the gathering war clouds put political and economic pressures on the theater that forced it to close. When it reopened in September 1945, it was under Czech management as the renamed Theater of the Fifth of May. With the ascendancy of communism in 1948, its operations were merged with the National Theater and it was renamed once again, this time as the Smetana Theater.

Over the next 40 years, the theater maintained its place as the city’s primary venue for visiting opera, ballet and drama companies, by virtue of its large stage size and an extensive renovation that stretched from 1967 to 1973. The changes that came in the wake of the Velvet Revolution included a divorce from the forced marriage with the National Theater, and, April 1, 1992, the theater officially became the Prague State Opera.

Since then the theater has shown a marked and admirable taste for adventuresome outings, reviving the operatic works of Leoš Janáček, staging “cult” pieces by the likes of Arrigo Boito, Philip Glass and Emil Burian and reviving productions that hadn’t played in decades, such as Hans Krása’s 1933 opera Verlobung im Traum and the “other” La Boheme by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. The ballet company, established as a full and separate entity just four years ago, has blossomed nicely. And the opera company tours regularly now, most recently with a sold-out series of performances of La traviata in Japan.

So it comes as a bit of shock to hear Žádná say, “There’s a perception of the State Opera as being second in quality to the National Theater. We hope one day to change this perception, to show that, while each house has different goals, in quality they are equal.”

Points of connection

The National Theater may have the notoriety, but it seldom has stories to match those that come with State Opera productions. The Saint-Saëns program, for example, had its genesis in a meeting Tourniaire had last year in Lyon with Maria Vandamme, the executive director of the Melba Foundation in Melbourne, Australia. Vandamme had been in Monaco searching for materials about Nellie Melba, the Australian soprano who was one the world’s reigning divas at the turn of the 20th century. Saint-Saëns wrote the title role of Hélène for her, and Vandamme found the original score sitting on a shelf at the Monte Carlo opera house, where it had sat untouched since the opera’s successful but brief run in 1904.

Vandamme showed the score to Tourniaire, who was immediately taken by it. “I thought, how is it possible that such beautiful music was not played for so long?” he says.

Tourniaire agreed to record it for Vandamme with Orchestra Victoria in Melbourne last October. He brought the score to Žádná, who liked not only the music but the potential it held for an anniversary program.

“Originally we were thinking about a Strauss and Wagner program,” she says. “But Nellie Melba sang at this theater, and Samson et Dalila had its Prague premiere here, and Saint-Saëns wrote Le Carnaval des Animaux in Prague. So there are many good points of connection.”

To round out the program, Tourniaire did a bit of detective work himself and found the orchestral score for Nuit Persane, a six-song cycle by Saint-Saëns that had been performed for many years only as a piano and vocal piece. The full version calls for two singers, a narrator, chorus and full orchestra.

“It’s an amazing piece, like an orchestra playing chamber music,” Tourniaire says. “I don’t know of any other work like this.”

There is much more to say about the music — but it’s better heard than discussed, especially given the energy and spirit that Tourniaire brings to it. In the best underdog tradition, he’s not letting budget constraints or any other excuse undercut his work.

“My credo is quality,” he says. “We have some very good singers, we’re working hard, and I know they’ll do these two pieces very well. Our big victory comes in doing something of high quality with a low budget. I just hope that, when the political people see it, they’ll give us more support.

Frank Kuznik