|Challenging dynamics in a resplendent setting.|
Before a single note was played at the Castle on Wednesday night, an interesting sound experiment was in the offing. Chairs for the Prague Philharmonia orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir were set up on the floor of Spanish Hall rather than a stage. This didn’t do much to help sight lines – for anyone more than a few rows back, the orchestra was largely invisible – but it promised a fresh approach to overcoming the hall’s notoriously bad acoustics.
There was only one piece on the bill: Dvořák’s Spectre’s Bride, an 1884 cantata for orchestra, choir and three soloists – in this case, soprano Mária Porubčinová, tenor Ladislav Elgr and baritone Ivan Kusnjer. Using text by Czech folklorist and poet Karel Jaromir Erben, the work recounts the Slavic legend of the abandoned maiden whose lover returns for her from beyond the grave in dramatic, colorful detail.
Tomáš Netopil, music director of the National Theater Orchestra and one of the country’s finest young conductors, was a perfect choice to lead the performance. He has a native feel for the Czech repertoire and a fine touch balancing the nuances and interplay of vocals and orchestra.
Daylight was just starting to pale in the high, elegant windows as Netopil launched into the piece with characteristic energy, quickly establishing Wagnerian dimensions for a musical narrative that veers from soft, tender laments by the soprano to wild explosions of Gothic horror. He drew a powerful, authoritative sound from the versatile Philharmonia without sacrificing any of the fine elements in the piece – sweet woodwinds, crisp horns, rippling strings, which in the solos and section passages offered some of the most enchanting music of the evening.
Standing behind the orchestra on risers backed up against the wall, the chorus was just as strong, thundering through the increasingly turbulent score with surprising precision and clarity – surprising, that is, given the space. Even a chorus of voices can’t hold together in Spanish Hall, where the sound breaks up by the time it’s reached the last rows of seats. But with the wall as a baffle, and more grounding than a stage affords, it had unusual integrity, giving the choral passages the kind of bite one normally hears only at Prague’s better chamber music venues.
Soloists, whatever their talent, are not so lucky. While the aesthetics of Spanish Hall are stunning, singing there is like yelling into a big tin can. Porubčinová compensated for that with a powerful delivery that carried and held up nicely, but sacrificed shadings for volume. Elgr was not very strong in his exchanges with Porubčinová, and in his solo parts was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra. Kusnjer fared the best, partly because he had the best voice and partly because a baritone seems to be the best timbre for the space. His narratives with the chorus were riveting, an irresistible surge of sound, like an ocean tide.
As daylight faded to pink, pale gray and finally slipped into twilight, the room darkened and the performance grew more dramatic, with just a few tasteful spotlights focused on the orchestra and singers, and the music growing more urgent and compelling. As Porubčinová offered her final prayers, the sound took on a radiant glow – not unusual for one of Netopil’s outings at the National Theater, but a rare accomplishment at the Castle. He brought the piece to a calm, soothing finish, bringing in the final choral and orchestral notes as gently as a cat’s paw.
In all, a superb evening: A seldom-performed Dvořák piece in a regal setting, led by a sharp conductor who knows how to blend fire and ice, and get the most out of his ensemble and singers. And a sound experiment that turned out to be a success. No one will ever mistake Spanish Hall for the Rudolfinum, but the Prague Philharmonia orchestra and organizers showed that with some care and intelligence, serious music can work there.
For a panoramic look at Spanish Hall (including chubby tourists): http://www.360cities.net/image/the-spanish-hall-prague#-241.72,-6.41,70.0
Photo courtesy of the Prague Philharmonia