Double Bill of Aleko and Pagliacci in Opava

The charming little Silesian town of Opava has a population of only 60,000 yet still maintains a permanent opera ensemble, which tells you much about the state of culture in this part of the world. Rachmaninov’s Aleko, new to me, was in a double bill with I Pagliacci; an astute pairing because they both deal with an itinerant society grappling with issues of morality and liberty. In Leoncavallo’s work, they are a performing troupe, combining misfits with clowns searching for an identity. In the Russian piece, derived from Pushkin, they are gypsies who disdain conventional notions of sexual fidelity. Rachmaninov wrote it as graduation piece and had not yet developed his own distinctive style. Nevertheless, it is strikingly effective as a sort of Russian verismo, mixing ardent vocal expression with urgent phrasing by the strings, plangent woodwind sounds and dark colours from the brass.

At the heart of the opera is Zemfira, the gypsy girl who demands the freedom to live and love as she will, rather than succumb to the constraints of Aleko, her “steady”, a Russian who had joined the gypsy band. Playful and seductive, she was brilliantly portrayed and sung by Barbora Řeřichová, a too prominent vibrato notwithstanding. As in previous performances on this Czech trip, I was disappointed with the quality of the male voices but, to some extent at least, there were compensations in their acting skills. And these were not unimportant as the piece reached its predictable tragic and bloody climax. The cast for I Pagliacci comprised mainly the same singers and again it was Barbora Řeřichová who alone impressed. Her Nedda was more flighty, more vulnerable, than her Zemfira but there was the same conviction vocally and dramatically and the same stage presence.

The conductor for the evening was Petr Šumník. He maintained a tight control over his orchestral forces. Equally at home in the Russian and Italian idioms, he brought passion and excitement to each opera. The director-designer Jana Andělová Pletichová might have done more to bring out the parallels between the works, but there was more than a little originality in her treatment of them. While the principal characters and their relationships were presented through expressionist gestures, those around them were somewhat stylised in their movements. In Aleko, for example, a group of dancers mirrored the twists and turns of the plot and, in Pagliacci, contributed to the commedia del’ arte which theatrically leads to the denouement.  The production was well paced and visually imaginative. Not bad for a town the size of Taunton.