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Dual prelude

An evening of two short operas in concert style

Posted: September 22, 2010

By Stephan Delbos - Staff Writer | Comments (0) | Post comment

Dual prelude

Courtesy Photo

Slovak soprano Simona Šaturová sings lead in Bohuslav Martinů's "Ariane".

Short operas are often overlooked by theaters, as brief compositions do not lend themselves easily to a full evening's entertainment. The National Theater has found a fine compromise for two performances this week, pairing Bohuslav Martinů's Ariane with Igor Stravinsky's The Nightingale.

Martinů composed Ariane in 1958, while he was completing his magnum opus The Greek Passion. The prevailing opinion is that Martinů developed Ariane - which runs about 40 minutes - as respite from the overwhelming work of the longer opera. But soprano Simona Šaturová, who will sing lead in Ariane, tells The Prague Post that the opera stands among Martinů's most accomplished, despite its length.

"Although Martinů himself wrote that he needed a rest from his work on The Greek Passion, he created a work that pleased him greatly and which shows his genius. And what is more, the difficulty of this piece does not depend on its length. To sing Martinů, one must concentrate on every small detail, because handling all the intricacies of rhythm and intonation is not easy," she says.

Ariane puts a surrealist spin on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. French Surrealist poet George Neveux wrote the libretto, which opens with Theseus's arrival in Crete in search of the mythical beast. The beautiful maiden Ariane enters, telling Theseus to depart so she can meet her lover, the Minotaur, in private. When the Minotaur arrives, he looks exactly like Theseus. Theseus defeats the Minotaur in battle, and sails back to Athens with Ariane by his side.

Ariane/The Nightingale
Where: National Theater
When: Sept. 22 and 24 at 7
Tickets: 50-600 Kč through Ticketportal

Conductor Tomáš Netopil tells The Prague Post that Ariane has special significance for him, because his first concert with the National Theater three years ago included the last aria from Martinů's opera. It was then that the conductor "fell in love with this charming piece," he says.

Combining these two operas makes for a lovely evening of music, but presents specific challenges for the conductor, according to Netopil.

"Whereas Martinů, the neoclassicist, typically used more basic sounds and softer chamber styles rather than heavy orchestration, for Stravinsky, rhythm is everything," he says. "Compressing the two operas into one evening is risky because you have to feel the two styles and keep them distinct."

Stravinsky began composing The Nightingale in 1908, but set it aside to work on his more famous ballets, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, only returning to the short opera in 1914. The Nightingale is often seen as a transitional work for the composer, as he began to focus more intensely on chamber music and piano compositions shortly after completing the opera.

Set in ancient China, The Nightingale revolves around the sweet, elusive singing of the eponymous songbird, which captivates the emperor by refusing to be domesticated. Ultimately, the nightingale, sung this week by soprano Olga Trifonová, flies to the dying Emperor, singing to restore his health.

Stravinsky's ability to capture the charm of this mythical story without sacrificing the melancholy nature of the nightingale's song is a testament to the conductor's versatility, says Netopil.

"The first act of The Nightingale is very impressionistic, while the second act is full of orchestral colors. Finally, the third act is all about the soloists, which is appropriate to the story," he says.

Another distinguishing detail about this week's performances is Netopil's decision to move the orchestra onstage in concert style - a rare choice for the National Theater.

"In the West, every theater has a concert series, but in Prague it's not that common, and we're not sure how audiences will react. Of course, when the orchestra is onstage, they are more visible and important for the performance. So I was thinking of them, because I wanted to feature them more prominently," he says.

It is unfortunate that short operas are not often featured in theater repertoires, and one hopes that other conductors might follow Netopil's lead in selecting fine contrasting pieces from two excellent composers. Audiences should not miss the rare chance to hear this lively pairing.

Stephan Delbos can be reached at

Tags: opera, ariane, nightingale, music, soprano, saturova, martinu, national theater, stravinsky, czech republic, prague concerts, czech classical concerts, classical music, prague classical music, stage.

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