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Dvořák: Alfred

spacer Froese; Rumpf, von Bothmer, T. Unger, Sabrowski, Mikuláš; Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno, and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, H. M. Förster. Libretto and translations. ArcoDiva UP 0410 2 612 (2 discs; full libretto included as PDF, also available online)

Recordings Alfred Cover 915

The story of Alfred the Great, the medieval British king who subjugated the invading Danes, seems an unlikely subject for Dvorˇák’s first opera. The use of a German libretto, by Karl Theodor Körner, might seem equally unlikely, until one remembers that, in 1870, Czech lands were still part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire; German was the official and culturally dominant language. That libretto, plunking down an old-fashioned love triangle in the midst of a war, makes for an effective piece of operatic dramaturgy.

Many passages in the opera have that peculiarly Czech way of sounding “melodic” despite the absence of a full-fledged melody. In others, the orchestra carries the main thematic material, as in Wagner and Puccini, with the soloists contributing brief motifs and snatches of legato. As a result, the score, while colorful and euphonious, has few readily distinguishable arias and other “numbers”: even Alfred’s entrance soliloquy, at the start of Act II, is dominated by arioso and recitative. The “trio” in that same act isn’t set off from the rest in any particular way. Only in Act III do we get recognizable set-pieces, all involving the soloists and chorus — the prayer, the concerted passages of the quintet, and the concluding tableau.

The opera was not performed until 1938, in Olomouc, and then in a Czech translation; the ArcoDiva issue documents the 2014 concert premiere in Prague of the original version. Heiko Mathias Förster conducts with a fine, idiomatic feel for the Dvorˇák style. The tempos always seem just, allowing the soloists room to inflect, while the surging, turbulent ensembles build up nice heads of steam. The thickest passages turn opaque — we lose the lower voices in the texture — but that may be the composer’s fault more than Förster’s; otherwise, sensible balances vividly convey the score’s variety of color.

In the title role, Felix Rumpf’s baritone has presence, authority and a fine sense of sweep. He makes expressive sense of the freely structured Romance and intones the Prayer with reverent breadth. As Alvina, his romantic interest, Petra Froese displays a clear soprano that strains a bit at the top, but she gives a committed performance, pointing and inflecting the text with character. Peter Mikuláš is probably the only “name” in the cast that Westerners will recognize; he begins Sieward’s Act II scene stiffly but paces the narrative that follows with immediacy.

The role of the Danish prince Harald, Alfred’s antagonist, is actually the longer and more prominent role. Ferdinand von Bothmer sings it plausibly, but his tenor is dry, the top squeezed, not soaring; he treats the line “Fürstin! Braut! Alvina!” as a run-on sentence. Jörg Sabrowski’s stiff, bottled-up baritone doesn’t always speak dead center in Gothron’s music. As the British commander Dorset, Tilmann Unger is another pressed tenor; his obbligatos in the prayer sound both puny and rhythmically adrift.

The performance begins with the Dramatic Overture, Dvorˇák’s reworking of the opera’s overture — presumably lost in its original form — as a concert piece. At more than fifteen minutes, it’s disproportionately long for the opera; indeed, the extended “churning” in the home stretch makes it seem a bit too long in its own right. There’s a lot of beautiful music along the way, though.

The concert recording is first-rate, reproducing the woodwinds with pinpoint imaging and the brass with full-throated depth. The chorus, which couldn’t very well have left the platform, is clearly “right there” for the offstage passages of Act II; the trumpets’ distant fanfare, however, registers clearly from offstage. In a novel solution to the libretto problem, each of the two CDs includes a PDF with a complete trilingual libretto (in German, English and Czech); the libretto is also on ArcoDiva’s website. This still doesn’t help those few who remain computerless. —Stephen Francis Vasta 

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