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Fanfare, May 2005

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Opera News, April 2005

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Julian Haylock
Classic FM, January 2005

"Jaromir Weinberger’s delightful Svanda Dudák (Svanda the Bagpiper) enthralled the world for a short period after its premiere in Prague in 1927. Translated into seventeen languages and given premieres at the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, the opera all but disappeared twenty years later and has barely been heard since.

Why did it vanish? The story is certainly appealing enough. A moral fable about a local Orpheus and his wife, Svanda celebrates the true love of the title character and Dorota. Spurring the proceedings along, a mentoring Robin Hood figure, the naughty Babinsky, puts one over on the haughty rich and even gets the better of the Devil. The charming locales include an unassuming Czech village, a fabled kingdom ruled by an ice princess and her evil right-hand man, and Hell itself. Love, magic, good versus evil and a colorful score make for an entertainment that is equal parts Rusalka, Hänsel und Gretel and The Bartered Bride. The evident influence of Smetana’s folkloric melodies is grounded by a Germanic contrapuntal influence. (Weinberger studied for a time with Max Reger.) Scenes are punctuated by numerous orchestral interludes, some fantastical, some tuneful folk dances, that propel the action. When the folk themes are not being sung, they are largely carried by the strings, as in the eleven-minute overture, and punctuated by the effervescent lines of the winds and brass that dance around them. Weinberger’s palette is varied and complex. So why has this opera not endured?

I don’t have an answer — unless it is that the challenge of marketing a single opera by an otherwise unknown composer written in an unfamiliar language is an insurmountable one for most opera companies. Judging by audience reactions caught on this live recording from the 2003 Wexford Festival, Wexford’s staging must have been full of winning antics. With one exception, the festival cast is a group of gifted, mostly Eastern European singers. The two leads, Matjaz Robavs as Svanda and Tatiana Monogarova as Dorota, are particularly strong. Robavs has a clear, tenorial baritone and terrific musicianship. In Svanda’s Act II aria, a song of yearning for home, he applies a warm, lied-like treatment, making this a highlight of the piece. Monogarova fills both Dorota’s lament and her recurring volks-lied with a honeyed voice and lovely, tapered phrasing. Paired with Robavs, Monogarova energizes her duet work in the third scene of Act I. Her role is written with high B and B-flat as the apex of many scenes; happily, this coincides with the most beautiful part in Monogarova’s range.

In the large secondary principal roles of the Queen and the Magician/Devil, mezzo-soprano Larisa Kostyuk and bass Alexander Teliga are characterful and vocally vivid. Kostyuk’s sepulchral chest tones strike fire into the dark heart of the Queen’s despair. Teliga’s voice balances dark and light, a perfect instrument for satanic malevolence. At the helm of a full Romantic orchestra, conductor Julian Reynolds keeps up a lively pace and gets mostly sturdy and occasionally fiery work from the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus, but the Wexford chorus flags at points under the Wagnerian demands of Weinberger’s choral tessitura."

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, December 2004

A joyous performance, well engineered.

Christopher Howell
MusicWeb International, October 2004

"David Shengold’s note begins by wondering if "Weinberger has serious rivals as opera’s textbook "one hit wonder"? Well, Humperdinck and Rutland Boughton spring to mind, and Italians have been quite prolific in "one hit wonders"; Ponchielli, Catalani, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea, Montemezzi … And, going back a little further, there are Balfe, Wallace and Benedict. However, the case of Weinberger is a rather special one in that the success of that one work has not so far inspired further exploration of his output. With Humperdinck and nearly all the Italians mentioned (excluding Montemezzi), the plethora of recordings of that work were obviously an open invitation to look for something else, and in any case "Königskinder" and several works by the Italians were not wholly unhonoured in their native land. But even the sole recording of Boughton’s "The Immortal Hour" has been followed by "Bethlehem", the 3rd Symphony and a few other things. While with Weinberger, not even the "Overture on Czech Christmas Carols" or the Variations on "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree", once popular, have had modern recordings.

Indeed, that work, "Schwanda the Bagpiper", is now making its first appearance in its original language since the previous recording, issued by Sony in 1981 on LP and 1989 on CD (now deleted) has a mouth-watering cast (Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, Siegfried Jerusalem, Siegmund Nimsgern, conducted by Heinz Wallberg) but was sung in German. This might not be so serious as it would be with late Dvorák, let alone Janácek, but sung Czech has a flavour of its own, due to the particular characteristic of the language that all words, even long ones, are accented on the first syllable.

After the work’s initial success it acquired as many detractors as admirers, the principal charge being that it combined naïve, folk-like melodies with erudite German contrapuntal methods which the composer learnt from Max Reger. Certainly, it contains a goodly store of homely, Smetana-like tunes in a similar vein to those well-known from the Polka and Fugue, and can be touching in its more tender moments. As for the counterpoint, it wears its erudition so lightly and joyously as to suggest that early commentators must have listened to very heavy-handed performances. Maybe the scene in Hell is a little long without stage action but otherwise we have a well-constructed, varied and at times touching opera. Perhaps what really irked those early commentators was an awareness that far more profound works by Janácek were still unknown outside then-Czechoslovakia, but now that particular battle has been won there is surely a place for Weinberger’s simpler charms.

I have not heard the Sony version but the present performance is a lively affair. The strings of the Belarus orchestra seem not very numerous but they play well and Julian Reynolds shows panache and affection though I thought the famous Polka a mite too fast (and I seem to remember an old recording under Scherchen which was just a shade slower, to good effect). Ivan Choupenitch is somewhat over-parted as Babinský and is inclined to lapse into hectoring to get his voice over, but Schwanda himself is very well taken by Matjaz Robavs, the Dorota is good, the Queen acceptable (a typically thick, Slavonic mezzo) and Alexander Teliga sounds a real Russian bass; in fact he is actually Polish. Though I should dearly like to hear the singers on the Sony recording I feel that preference should go to the version in the original language if possible and only one singer is an actual stumbling-block from this point of view.

A warm recommendation, then, to an invigorating and touching work which deserves a place in the catalogue and maybe in the theatre too. The Wexford audience seem to have enjoyed it very much. If you are particularly irritated by live recordings then you should bear this in mind. The recording is vivid but transferred at an unusually low level. I had to set my volume at about five to eleven instead of my usual quarter to nine. If you want to listen on a Walkman or any other small machine this might be a problem. The booklet essay is good and there is a detailed synopsis but no libretto, let alone translation.

To go back to my original point; would there be any point in investigating Weinberger any further? Well, the only other work I know is the Bible Poems for organ (1939). They show the same use of simple, direct yet effective, communicative and touching means. So it would seem that Schwanda was not just a fluke. How about trying "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

It’s sad to think that the creator of such exuberant, optimistic and light-hearted music became so depressed in later years at the increasing neglect of his music that he took his own life at his home in Florida, where he had been living since 1939. I hope his manuscripts have been preserved somewhere and will be sympathetically examined one day."

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