Antonín Dvořák opera takes to stage for only second time in 150 years

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In 1870, Antonín Dvořák, who was yet to become one of the world’s finest composers, wrote his first opera called Alfred. The piece was only performed once, in 1938, long after Dvořák’s death, and then fell into oblivion. Now, nearly seventy years after its first staging, Alfred lived to see its second premiere, this time with the original German libretto, as part of the Dvořák Prague festival.


The premiere of Alfred at Prague’s Rudolfinum last week was awaited with great anticipation. After all, the piece was to be staged only for the second time in 150 years. A few days after the premiere, I met with Guy Borg, head of the artistic planning at the Dvořák Prague festival, to talk about the opera and its unsettled history:

“The opera was written when Dvořák was 29, so he was very young, for a start, and we don’t know for absolutely certain whether he intended the piece to be performed or whether it was just an experiment with writing an opera, an experiment with form. It seems likely that he wanted it performed. We know that he showed it to Bedřich Smetana, who was his conductor at the Provisional Czech Theatre in Prague where Dvořák was incidentally a viola player. But we don’t know what Smetana thought of the piece but we do now that it was never performed. In terms of later in his life, Dvořák seems to have disowned the piece, he doesn’t include it in the lists of compositions he made later in life.”

How would you describe the music itself?

“I would say that the music is a kind of snapshot into the development of a great composer. We see a young composer who is experimenting. We hear elements of later Dvořák, but only very small elements. Mostly it is the work of a man under the influence of his idols.”

What kind of influence can be traced in this early piece?

“Certainly we hear the influence of Wagner, who was possibly Dvořáks biggest influence at the time. We hear it in the use of leitmotifs for individual characters which is quite a Wagnerian trait, we hear it in the chromaticism of the music as well. I would say that this is the major influence on the work.”

Can you mention any others?

“Dvořák was very interested in the new German school of composers at the time so you can argue that there are influences of Liszt as well. But I would say that the Wagner is the main influence.”

Listening to this early composition, can you actually trace some features that are typical for Dvořák’s later, or his best-known pieces?

“I would say it is certainly not Dvořák as we know him, but I think you can hear some elements of later Dvořák. For example his orchestration, his masterful orchestration, which we know so well from the latest pieces, is present, audible in the piece. And I also think that his writing for choir, his choral sections, anticipates on his later operas. ”

Would you say that you can actually tell that the person who wrote this piece will once evolve into a famous composer?

“I think it would be hard to say on the basis of Alfred that we are dealing somebody who would become one of the world’s greatest composers. However we certainly hear a tremendously skilled and talented young composer at world.”

Can you tell me something about the libretto? As far as I know, it was set to music by other composers as well.

“It was written sixty years previous to Dvořák actually composing the music. It’s a German libretto written by little known German romantic poet. It is not I would say a wonderful libretto. It deals with the story of the English King Alfred the Great as he tried to repel Danish invaders in the ninth century, there is a love story on the side and so on. You could argue that even in the libretto that the appeal to Dvořák might have been the Wagnerian themes of heroism and distant semi-mythical past.”

I read that the piece is actually very demanding for the singers. Why is that?

“It is partly in the writing. As I mentioned, the Wagnerian elements include this sort of chromaticims which means that some of the vocal lines for the singers are incredibly complex and difficult. And in fact Petra Froese, the soprano, who plays the role of Alvina, commented that this role for her was the most difficult she has ever sung. And it is not as if she was inexperienced with Dvořák, but again it’s a testament to the fact that this work is very different from what we know of later Dvořák.”

I also read that one of the major leitmotifs of the opera is almost identical to International. Is that right and could the two authors have met? How would you describe the coincidence?

“Well, it is a strange one. I think this is something that we have to put down to coincidence, though. The similarities are unmistakable, however, it is impossible the G could have heard Alfred for a start and highly unlikely that the two composers could have met.”

How did the idea to perform the opera actually come about?

“The fate of this piece is fascinating. As you mentioned before, it was performed once previously, in 1938 in Olomouc, and after that point it seemed to disappear once again from view and wasn’t heard anywhere. There had been some sporadic attempts to resuscitate the piece, I believe there were some attempts made in the 1980s.

"But this is a real undertaking, in terms of the preparations and costs involved. The parts for individual players had to be writtenfrom the original manuscript, the libretto itself had to be rewritten, because it was written originally in Gothic script, so there is a lot of work involved. We were fortunate to work in partnership with Arco Diva, the record label and Czech Radio and this time, fortunately, the circumstances aligned and we were able to make it happen.”

Whose idea was it originally to resuscitate the opera again?

“It was a nice coincidence of motivations. I know that Dr Jiří Štilec of Arco Diva had been trying to make this happen. And from our side, as the Dvořák Prague Festival, of course that one of the things that we really try to do is to represent the full scope of Dvořák’s work. Not only to play the greatest hits as it were, although the New World Symphony was in the programme this year, we usually programme the Cello Concerto, which is very famous. But we feel an obligation to the composer to try to represent his works as broadly as we can. And it is our hope as well that in so doing some of these lesser known works might eventually return to the concert repertoire more widely and we would hope for example in the case of Alfred it would be wonderful to see it appearing now as a more frequently performed opera in theatres in Prague and around the country.”

Do you think it is likely that it will be performed again, since it is so demanding?

“I would hesitate to say it is likely, I hope that it would happen. You are quite right that it is a very demanding work not only for the soloists but for the orchestra as well. I must also point out that Heiko Matthias Forster, our conductor, did a tremendous job, because he really had to take this piece almost from nothing there was no audio reference, and just build it up.

"The advantage that any other conductor or any other opera theatre company would have in the future in putting this on is that our performance of Alfred was recorded and will be released via Arco Diva records later this year. So there will be an audio reference which will make it simpler. I think it depends on how brave various programmers are how, much they want to pay tribute to Dvořák, how well they want to represent him. It will certainly be a challenge for anybody but I think it is a challenge worth undertaking, as we have found.”

What were the reactions of the audiences and of the critics?

“I am very happy to say that in both cases the reactions were extremely positive. The atmosphere in the Dvořák Hall of Rudolfinum was very special. One certainly had a sense of being present at a historical occasion. I think the applause at the end was more than testament to the fact that this was an experience that meant a lot to the people who had come to see it. We have also been very pleased with the reviews which have been excellent. In sure we couldn’t really be happier with how it all gone.”

Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
Added: 23.09.2014

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