Ivan Kusnjer: "Czech Opera Rarities"
Arias by various composers. Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Pesˇek; various other ensembles and conductors. Notes; no texts or translations. Supraphon SU 4074-2
Here is a glimpse of a national operatic tradition that flowered — or at least budded — for two centuries, often overlooked by the West. From an opera seria of 1776 (text by Metastasio) to an old-fashioned historical romance that had its premiere in 1958, the disc samples obscure works by Czech composers while paying tribute to veteran baritone Ivan Kusnjer (b. 1951), who performs in all fourteen of these archival selections.
The listener starts the first track eager for discoveries but has to make do with observations. One is the absence, in the music itself, of signs of modernism, experimentation or even strong personality. Ditto any reflection of the political upheavals that helped end the CSSR. If this anthology is representative, we have to conclude that Czech opera has primarily looked backward to the region's popular traditions, no doubt in reaction to foreign occupation. The music heard here is tuneful, conservative, often derivative, colored by rustic and Slavic-sounding folk themes — in a manner familiar from Tchaikovsky or Smetana — and gently spiced orchestration.
One disappointment is the lack of anything by Janáček, whose earlier works remain rarities, at least in the West. Smetana and Dvořák are both heard from. The former's Brandenburgers in Bohemia provides an ardent love song, which Kusnjer invests with warmth and urgency. Dvořák's early Vanda is represented in a lush, polished scene, overgenerous with the harp, sparked by the participation of tenor Miroslav Kopp.
From Karel Bendl's Lejla (1868), with a plot reminiscent of La Juive, we hear a lyrical, melodious declaration. Considerable variety and changes of pace lend interest to a scene from Eduard Nápravnik's 1895 work Dubrovskij, based on Pushkin. As is so often the case here, it sports folklike tunes, but Nápravnik intersperses them with parlando effects and some bold orchestra touches and verismo heat.
Vítézslav Novák's Karlstejn (1916) makes the biggest splash, with a choral performance of the familiar St. Wenceslas Chorale embedded in a dramatic scene. But despite Novák's reputation as an innovator, this excerpt is not so inventive as a late-nineteenth-century sample, from Zdenék Fibich's Hedy (1896), derived from Lord Byron's Don Juan, a well-developed scene of condemnation by a Commendatore-like father, cleverly orchestrated and characterized.
The performances are from commercial recordings, as well as radio and television programs, of the 1980s and '90s. Conductor Libor Pesˇek, who made frequent international appearances, leads about half of the excerpts, without fireworks but in an efficient, persuasive manner.
Baritone Kusnjer sang some sixty roles during his long association with the State Opera in Prague and in guest appearances throughout Europe. Here, for the most part, he uses his lyric timbre smoothly and evenly, although he can be imprecise and strained. He enters into the mood of these scenes and shows every sign of reacting to specific lines and words.
DAVID J. BAKER
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.