Dvořák’s “Spectre’s Bride” a Surprisingly Great Dramatic Work

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DVOŘÁK: The Spectre’s Bride (Svatební Košile) / Drahomira Tikalová, soprano (The Girl); Beno Blachut, tenor (Dead Man); Ladislav Mráz, bass-baritone (Narrator); Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaroslav Krombholc, conductor / Supraphon 3574 (part of 2-CD set with Novak’s The Storm), also available for free streaming on YouTube

Here is yet another recording I discovered via a diversion. Dvořák’s very dramatic cantata, The Spectre’s Bride, was written and premiered in 1885 and was an unqualified success, but the maddening popularity of his sweetsy-cutesy Romantic opera Rusalka somehow pushed this 80-minute masterpiece off the cliff, from which it has never really returned. There are a few other recordings of it, including a recent one with the most miserable-sounding vocal soloists you’ll ever want to hear, but the drama and high quality of the music led me to this splendid 1961 recording.

And what makes it so splendid? Certainly not the sound, which is stereo but a bit on the scrappy side—although, to be honest, the slightly scrappy sound adds to the excitement. No, the real reason is that both the vocal soloists and the conductor (and with him, the orchestra and chorus) sound as if they’re 100% emotionally invested in this music…plus the fact that the singers all have solid voices and crisp diction, although soprano Tikalová had one of those typically acidic Czech soprano voices. The way this cast and conductor sing and play this music, they make it sound like Der Freischütz or Dvořák’s dramatic tone poems, The Noon Witch and The Water Goblin. Rusalka indeed has “prettier” music, but let’s face it, the forces of darkness and death always get the coolest music!

The plot, which is relatively simple (this is, after all, a cantata, though this performance is wholly operatic in style), concerns a young woman whose bridegroom has gone far away. How far he has gone becomes apparent when he returns as a dead ghost, beckoning her to follow him so he can consummate their marriage before daybreak. She follows him with fear in her heart, asking him questions but receiving no answers. The dead groom demands her prayer-book and rosary, which he hurls far away from them. They approach a graveyard behind a church; her groom has thrown her wedding dress over the wall and now asks her to jump over it herself. She refuses to do so, but this doesn’t stop the dead man from vaulting the wall and demanding admission to the house, which is surrounded by ghosts who ask a corpse laid out there to get up and answer the door. The girl again prays, this time to Mary the mother of Jesus to free her from evil. In the village a rooster crows, announcing the dawn; the ghost of the bridegroom disappears as churchgoers stand in surprise before an open grave, the now torn wedding dress next to the frightened woman. They learn of her story and praise her actions.

Despite Tikalová’s somewhat acidic voice, she sang with tremendous fervor and involvement; we believe in her as a character. Beno Blachut, as the dead groom, had a lovely and splendid lyric tenor including superb use of head tone. The third singer, bass-baritone Ladislav Mráz, assumes the role of narrator and often sings with the chorus. He had one of those wonderful Slavic baritone voices, rich and dark-toned; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he sang the roles of Alberich or Kaspar in Der Freischütz. Every time he sings, he dominates center stage, and that is something that most of the other singers of this role on other recordings just don’t accomplish.

And listen to that choir! WOW, do they kick butt! The music is far from being just splashy and uninteresting; Dvořák masterfully used chromatic movement, sometimes stepwise up and down, within sections of the cantata, to enhance the sinister mood. In one of the sections in which the bass-baritone sings with chorus, the music used sounds remarkably like Russian folk song. Moreover, his orchestral writing here is as good as anything that either he or Smetana ever did in any other piece they wrote. The way Dvořák builds and releases tension will keep you on the edge of your seat, as it apparently did at its world premiere, which took place—believe it or not!—in London, sung in English. The composer was absolutely euphoric over the reception of this work: “I just cannot tell you how much these British honor and like me!” he wrote. “Everywhere, they are writing and talking about me, saying I am the lion of this year’s musical season in London.” Undoubtedly, the rhythmic spring and energy of the music had a lot to do with this reaction.

As for the partner work in this 2-CD set, Vitězslav Novak’s The Storm (1910), it’s a good piece using quite a few Richard Strauss-isms, but not on the high level of his teacher’s (Dvořák’s) work. If you care to hear it first, it, too is available for free streaming on YouTube. Soprano Tikalová is in fresher, less acidic voice here; this appears to have been recorded in mono about five years before The Spectre’s Bride.

All in all, it’s difficult to say anything bad about either this score or its interpretation here. The music gets hold of you and, once it really gets going, never lets up until the very end. Despite the lack of action, I could easily envision this being staged as a one-act opera, coupled with something equally dramatic (and under-appreciated) like Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re. Hey, American opera companies! You want something interesting to spice up your season? This surely beats the latest opera about transgender people!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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