Martinů’s Three Wishes in Ostrava

Sometimes when you are away from the familiar operatic circuit you strike gold. Who would have expected to find extravagant music theatre in Moravia-Silesia? But extravagant it was. A rare revival of Bohislav Martinů’s “opera-film” The Three Wishes, better known under its original French title Les trois souhaits, requires a large budget and much artistic imagination. In Ostrava it received both.

Martinů in Paris in the 1920s was experimental and daring. With his literary collaborator Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, to create an operatic fantasy, he determined to bring to it all types of spectacle then in mode: operetta, cabaret, jazz, melodramatic cinema, animation and dance. Not Gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense but rather a display of different media to entertain and to express nothing except the futility of searching for things beyond oneself. I had previously seen the work only once, in Lyon, over forty years ago and I do not recall that the presentation attempted to follow Martinů’s instructions as faithfully as the Ostrava show.

Jiří Nekvasil’s production was lively, energetic in movement and full of humorous detail. He was aided by Daniel Dvořák’s colourful abstract modernistic sets and the costumes of Sylva Zimula Hanáková were stunning – they could have graced a fashion show. The cast rightly concentrated on caricature: the cuckolded husband trapped in his loneliness; the erring wife relishing her gains in wealth and carnal satisfaction; her young lover, spruce but shallow. Yet there was also the pathos of a poverty-stricken old woman and, above all, the wit and charm of the fairy who responds to the wishes.

Martinů’s eclectic score, ably executed by Robert Kružík and his orchestra, breathes the 1920s. All the soloists entered into the spirit of the piece and sung their jazzy numbers as though born to the idiom. Allow me to pick out just one for special mention: Jana Hrochová who, as the fairy, used her warm mezzo to great effect. The opera does have its longeurs, particularly in the Third Act when we are given a film reprise of the story, but it is nevertheless astonishing that it is not performed more often. Are we still afraid of the nihilism of the 1920s?