OPERA NEWS - The Spectre’s Bride
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DVOŘAK: The Spectre’s Bride

CD Button Šaturová; Breslik, Plachetka; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Singakademie, Meister. Text and translation. Capriccio C5315

Recordings Spectres Bride Cover 1017

ALTHOUGH DVOŘAK wrote this dramatic cantata sixteen years before Rusalka, its musical method will be familiar to anyone who knows the later “lyric fairy tale.” You’ll find the same sense of melodic bounty and the same use of folklike musical material to evoke the uncanny. Based on a ballad by the poet Karel Jaromír Erben, Svatební Košile (The Spectre’s Bride)tells the story of a peasant girl who pines for her distant fiancé and prays to the Virgin Mary for his return. A demonic specter takes the form of her lover and leads her on a frenzied race toward her damnation. At the last moment, she offers another prayer to the Virgin, securing her own redemption. 

The tale is mawkish, but it gave the composer opportunity to create moods alternately pious, romantic and (especially) diabolical. The present recording, derived from a pair of live performances in 2016, manages to suggest all of this, but the orchestra does not consistently create the music’s optimum effect. Although Cornelius Meister has drawn thoroughly competent work from his musicians and chorus, fuzziness hovers at the edges: one wonders if a bit more rehearsal time might have tightened the ensemble and given the maiden’s expression of love a little more rapture, or the gallop toward oblivion a little more horror.

Dvořák divided solo duties between a soprano, voicing the bride; a tenor, as her infernal lover; and a bass, who along with the chorus serves as narrator. Here, much to the benefit of the performance, all three roles fall to native Czechoslovakians. Simona Šaturová’s use of language is the chief distinction of her work: you hear in her inflections both the girl’s naïveté and her capacity for love. The sound itself is somewhat flimsy, though, with a beat on sustained notes. I especially wished that Šaturová could have called upon a richer palette of colors to give urgency to her final supplication to the Virgin.

Pavol Breslik’s vocal equipment shades similarly light, and one can easily imagine a more heroic tenor in the role. But the very ingenuousness of his sound makes him a convincing seducer. He shows us how, despite the infernal circumstances, the maiden can hear her sweet lover in the specter’s blandishments. The voice itself betrays some moments of unsteadiness toward the beginning, but it gathers focus throughout the proceedings—a result, no doubt, of the live performance—becoming marvelously fresh and free for the work’s climax.

Adam Plachetka uses his lyric but dark-tinged bass-baritone to assert himself at the center of the performance: the narrator becomes the all-seeing presence who draws us into the cantata’s fantastic realm. The Czech text includes a number of folkish tongue-twisters; Platchetka’s treatment of the language at these points is thrillingly precise and thoroughly musical. —Fred Cohn 

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