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Reviews

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09 Jul 2009

DVOŘÁK: Král a uhlíř (The King and the Charcoal Burner)

Years before Antonin Dvořák composed his most famous opera Rusalka (1900), he completed a series of works in the genre which contributed to his reputation and skill in this genre.

Antonin Dvořák: Král a uhlíř (The King and the Charcoal Burner)

Dalibor Jenis; Peter Mikuláš; Michelle Breedt; Livia Ághová; Michal Lehotsky; Markus Schäfer, Prager Kammerchor; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Gerd Alvrecht, conductor.

Orfeo 678062 [2CDs]

$41.99  Click to buy

Dating from the early part of Antonin Dvořák’s career, The King and Charcoal Burner (Král a uhlíř) was composed in 1871, the time when he was also establishing his reputation with his first symphonic works. Even with positive reviews, Dvořák rewrote The King and Charcoal Burner in 1874 and in 1887 revised that version further, with these revisions suggesting that even that late in his career he found the score worth his attention. Interest in the work continued after Dvořák’s death, when t he opera was revised posthumously by the conductor Karel Kovařovic for a new production in 1914. As indicated in the notes that accompany this CD, the version of the work in this recording is a conflation between the composer’s last revisions and the modifications found in the piano-vocal score which contains Kovařovic’s changes. Despite this complicated history, the performance is quite accessible and the music bears Dvořák’s stylistic imprint.

The basis for the opera is the story of a young Czech whose virtue and honesty win him a place in the court of the seventeenth-century Habsburg ruler Rudolf II during the reign of the Bohemia King Matyáš. The first act takes place in forest home of Matěj, the charcoal burner of the title, whose daughter Liduška loves Jenik, but is reticent about that, since her parents would prefer that she not marry another charcoal burner. A lost nobleman finds them, and all they know is his name, Matyáš and that he is a royal huntsman - he did not reveal himself as king. Matyáš seems attracted to Liduška, which arouses Jenik’s jealousy, but those emotions recede with the merrymaking Matěj pursues to entertain their guest before retiring in their cottage for the night.

At dawn Matyáš is already awake, and Liduška, who has also arisen, speaks to the noble about her love for Jenik. Matyáš promises to intercede, but when Jenik finds them, he assumes that Matyáš has other intentions and attacks the king. Matters resolve when Count Jindřich finds Matyáš, who gives Liduška some gold for her family’s efforts. Jenik understand the situation and realizes Liduška’s faithfulness. Yet he is also aware of his poor station and decides to become a soldier to improve his lot. A year later, Jenik’s established himself as a reliable soldier in the court, but he longs for Liduška. Count Jindřich lets Jenik know that the king has invited Matěj and his family to court. However, the king has decided to test Liduška and her family by setting up a fake trial against them, with Jenik informed of ruse. The king claims that Matěj used Liduška to lure him to their cottage with the intention of robbing him before having Jenik the charcoal burner murder the king. He even tells them that Jenik is imprisoned and awaiting execution. Liduška offers her own life in exchange for Jenik’s freedom, and at that point, the king explains the ruse and reveals his identity to Matěj and his family.

A summary of the plot is useful to point out the situations which would inspire Dvořák’s musical imagination. In the first act, the scenes lend themselves to a series of numbers: a chorus of huntsman, a duet between the lovers Liduška and Jenik, a chorus of coal burners, and other pieces. The end of the act also involves popular-sounding music that evokes the peasants’ merrymaking, and the religious idiom of the “Angelus” prayer at the end of the scene. In this act the music is as important as the libretto in setting up the dramatic situation. The scene between the lovers is effective through the lyricism Dvořák used to characterize them and their love, and the roles are sung well by Livia Ághová and Michal Lehotsky. Dalibor Jenis, a singer whose first name calls to mind Smetana’s opera so titled, gives an appropriate tone to the king in disguise, who functions Alidoro in Rossini’s *Cenerentola *in bringing about a satisfying conclusion to the romantic situation. In addition, Peter Mikuláš and Michelle Breedt, respectively Matěj and Anna, Liduška’s parents, command the roles well and work well in the ensembles.

In the second act, the king’s meditation after the orchestral introduction is a fine solo piece for Jenis, who delivers it convincingly, and Liduška’s soliloquy is a parallel to his, with Ághová’s restraint effective for communicating her plight. The duet that follows reflects the influence Wagner had on Dvořák, and while the thematic material is not as overtly similar as it is in the composer’s Third Symphony, the interaction of melodic motives and arioso-like passages involve Wagnerian gestures. Thus, the scene builds when Jenik, portrayed by Lehotsky, enters, and the textures intensify with the addition of chorus. Again, the use of melodic ideas to carry the text give the work a sense of music drama, rather than the kind of number-based idiom of Weber. This fine performance led by Gerd Albrecht brings out the full intensity of Dvořák’s score idiomatically, as found in the nicely paced evocation of a Czech folk tune as a kind of rondo theme in the scene with which the act ends.

As the work resolves in the third act, Dvořák continues to shape the elements into a sonic image of the court in Prague. Here Albrecht demonstrates his mastery of Dvořák’s vocal idiom and balances the sometimes full orchestral accompaniment. The mock trial of Matěj’s family is done well through the efforts of Mikuláš and Breedt, with Ághová’s Liduška’s notable for its lyrical and dramatic focus. The result is a fine performance of this little-known opera, a work which helps to give a fuller sense of Dvořák’s oeuvre. As strong a work as Rusalka is, The King and the Charcoal Burner offers insights into its composers other efforts in opera. Recorded in 2005 and now released by Orfeo, this recording makes this solid performance available with the full text in Czech, German, French and English.

James L. Zychowicz

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