Smetana’s Devil’s Wall in Ostrava

Smetana’s opera The Devil’s Wall is rarely performed outside its homeland and it is not difficult to understand why. It tells the story of a devil who seeks to thwart a feudal lord in leading a life of love and religious devotion. The librettist Eliška Krásnohorská originally intended it as a serious work on the conflict between good and evil, but Smetana had other ideas, wanting something more comic, more romantic. Alienating her – for they did not communicate for over a year – he made many changes to the libretto. In the result the piece, labelled as a “comic-romantic opera”, is neither one thing, nor the other. At least, until the last act when the Devil’s wall comes tumbling down, it does not have sufficient dramatic thrust to be taken seriously, nor sufficient comedy to allow it to succeed on that level. It is also loosely constructed:  to accommodate the many twists and turns in the plot, the various characters, most notably the Devil who adopts different disguises, keep coming and going in a confusing way.

Notwithstanding the simple and effective decors of David Bazika, Jiří Nekvasil’s production for the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre at Ostrava failed to get the disparate elements in the work to cohere. With the notable exception of the veteran tenor Jan Vacík (I last saw him as Peter Grimes in Braunschweig)  who gave a fetching performance as the father who wants to get his girl wed to the lord, the soloists could not project convincing characterisations of their roles. The score contains a few impressive numbers which were reasonably well sung but it is not Smetana at his best, even though the conductor Jakub Klecker strove to convince us otherwise.