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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Opera Buffa

  • Comedy on the Bridge
  • Alexandre bis
Jarmila Krátká
René Tucek
Anna Barová
Richard Novák
Vladimir Krejcík
Bohumir Kurfürst
Brno Janáček Opera Orchestra/František Jílek
Supraphon 112140-2 611 80:03
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Buffa buffa.

Every one of Martinů's operas react against the dominant theatrical "realism" of the previous generation. Martinů disliked that form of theater, probably associating it with Italianate melodrama. He turned instead mainly to Surrealist plays, medieval ritual, folk stories, and farces. Characters act out wildly unbelievable situations and seem more like marionettes than flesh and blood. Yet, when the opera ends, one realizes that Martinů's characters have taught us something of life, against the odds.

Martinů wrote Comedy on the Bridge in 1935, with a libretto based on a short play by 19th-century Czech dramatist Václav Klicpera. He intended the opera for radio, in the days when people thought of radio as an evangelist of art. We know it now primarily as a political shill and a money machine. The opera finally saw a stage production in 1951 which received great, though short-lived acclaim.

The plot reads like an I Love Lucy episode. Two principalities, separated by a great river and a bridge with a sentry at each end, are at war. Popelka, passing through enemy territory, surrenders her safe conduct to the enemy sentry, who lets her pass. She walks the bridge to the "friendly" sentry, who refuses to let her pass, despite her protests that she lives just beyond. She turns back to the enemy side, but since her safe conduct allowed her only to pass to get home, the other sentry stops her. She's now stuck on the bridge. Along comes Bedron (the local hops-grower) who also finds himself with Popelka on the bridge. He flirts with her and steals a kiss, just in time for Sykos (Popelka's fiancé) to catch him at it. Sykos, who thinks that Popelka has betrayed him (what was she doing in the enemy camp?) gets on his high horse, but he too is caught between the sentries. Enter Bedron's wife, Eva, out looking for him, who gives up her safe conduct to berate her husband for stepping out on her. Sykos wants to call off the wedding. Eva wants a divorce. Just to make things slightly more complicated, the local schoolmaster, preoccupied with a riddle, also joins the quartet. All the principals wind up stranded on the bridge.

It turns out that nearly every one of these people guard a secret, while the schoolmaster has a riddle. Bedron is a spy, as well as a letch. Popelka has gone to the enemy camp to bury a man she thinks is her brother (his head was shot off, so she's not sure). Sykos has kissed other girls, and Eva flirts with other men. When the cease-fire ceases and the guns start shooting, everyone confesses and eventually everyone forgives. The schoolmaster's riddle runs as follows: A deer is caught in a preserve, around which runs a wall so high no bird can fly over it. How shall the deer escape? There's no gate, no hole, no ditch, no river. The answer reminds me a bit of the wise men of Chelm, from Yiddish folklore.

The guns shoot louder. Obviously, a major battle rages all around our little troupe. The shooting stops. Their side has won. Bedron's information has given their soldiers the victory. The answer to the schoolmaster's riddle is revealed. Everyone's happy as the radio curtain falls.

Martinů structures his opera very much as Mozart does in Le nozze di Figaro. These are neither "songs" nor Wagnerian continuity, but essentially instrumental forms with vocal accompaniment. You could assign the voice parts to instruments and lose nothing, and the form would become even clearer. The music, similar to parts of Martinů's folk-ballet Spalícek, is filled with little marches, polkas, and folk-like ballads in the composer's patented "Dvořák Meets Stravinsky" mode – bright colors, sprightly rhythms, listening just to the little overture brings a smile – the perfect accompaniment to the wind-up toys on stage. I always wondered whether Martinů gravitated toward these libretti because they fit his music at the time or because of some deeper emotional disposition, so well does the music suit the action.

Alexandre bis, or the Tragedy of a Man Who Had His Beard Cut comes from 1937, but was premièred in 1964, five years after the composer's death. World War II put the kibosh on any plan for production. Martinů approached the French Surrealist writer André Wurmser to ask for something that might have a part for a singing cat. Wurmser had to tell him no, but he did have an idea for a story which had a part for a singing oil painting. Martinů liked the idea, and the two collaborated.

The opera updates Cosí fan tutte and, I believe, betters it. In the classic farce time and place of 1900 Paris, Alexandre decides to test his wife's (Armande) fidelity by shaving his beard and posing as his cousin from San Francisco. Armande is indeed virtuous. Beautiful, she has fended off would-be lovers for years, but she falls in love with the American "cousin." She even recognizes her husband. But Alexandre has become both her husband and not her husband. In a sequence half-real and half-dream, she takes cousin to bed. The next morning, her husband, in a full false beard, turns up again, as proper as ever (he'll remove the beard when he wants to play again), but Armande decides that she's unfaithful and deceitful after all. She has merely taken her husband for her lover, betrayed her husband with himself. What's more, she likes it. And if with him, why not with others? The moral of Wurmser's story, unlike that of da Ponte, is "Don't knowingly lead your wife into temptation, for the devil never sleeps, and there are never two without three."

The characters – including a foppish lover, Oscar, and a maid, Philomène – and the situation come straight from Feydeau. In her very first aria, Philomène laments her lot in life: "I clean house in a comic opera." The Portrait offers bourgeois commentary on the developments of the plot. Apparently, the painter has caught an essential element of Alexandre's personality. Armande and Oscar could just as easily be Rosalinde and Alfredo from Fledermaus. The situation makes them trivial. Alexandre's a fool to test rather than to trust his wife. Armande realizes her husband is more than a bit of a jerk.

The music for Alexandre, still recognizably Martinů, is warmer than in Comedy on the Bridge, closer really to Martinů's full-length Julietta, written to some extent, at least, at the same time. It loses the clarity of Comedy on the Bridge but gains in complexity of situation and character. The moral of Comedy on the Bridge is that we're all weak and should forgive each other. Alexandre, however, tells us that we're all weak and therefore shouldn't tempt each other. The balance between reality and dream in the night sequence is never upset, and you're not quite sure exactly what is real. As Wurmser points out, "What you dream of, what you are like, your hates, your desires and your loves, are visibly displayed at night." Our dreams, in other words, are our hearts speaking our inner truth.

Jílek and his Czech performers perform delightfully. The singers act as well as they need to, but Martinů and his librettists spare them the difficulty of creating believable characters. This is vaudeville froth, almost pure and almost simple. The recorded sound is fine. A very good time.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz