Baroque Opera – It’s Fun!

Czech Position

Prague Baroque Festival sings up nightly performances of some over-the-top opera along with the world premiere of one by Vivaldi

Music as a tool to communicate; contrast as a dramatic element; recreating the music and drama of ancient cultures – all this sounds a bit theoretical, but in fact Baroque opera is just plain fun. The Prague Baroque Festival is currently running nightly in the Ledebour Garden through Oct. 3. An ambitious first year event, director Tomáš Klíma told Czech Position that they knew what they were doing was big.

“It’s the first time and we are scared of everything,” he said. “We are trying the maximum, but I think the fact that we are performing every day at 8 p.m., it’s easy to know, remember and the best way to introduce ourselves. But we are tired.”

The festival opened June 17 and is rotating six different operas. At a recent performance of “Torso,” I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Opera is not on my list of cultural pastimes so I didn’t have high expectations for an enjoyable evening. But it was entertaining, amusing and the performers were terrific. Sitting in the Ledebour Garden, the lovely but crumbling façade is the perfect backdrop for the elaborate costumes and feathered headdresses of the four singers. Ensemble Damian was expertly backed by the Vivaldi Orchestra Praga and the performance was lighthearted and merry.

Baroque opera was originally performed for royalty, and at the start a “cardinal” came out; nodded to the audience and the musicians who then began. He sat and watched, at the end gave a nod of approval to the fawning performers and walked off. What a job! Baroque opera is also characterized by its emotional level; with the performers expressively singing to the audience. In fact, strange facial contortions, and one gentleman’s’ strange dancing moves reminiscent of a drunk ballerina (while expertly hitting the high notes) brought smiles of pleasure from the audience.

Fun and games

“Baroque opera is a complex phenomenon,” says Tomáš Hanzlík, the festival’s artistic director. “It’s specific features are spectacular fantasy costumes, vocal virtuosity, and stylized (unrealistic) acting techniques.”

The word “baroque” was originally used as an insult to describe art or music that was overly extravagant, even slightly bizarre; in the 20th century however, it became a respectable term. Baroque opera dates from about 1600 to about 1750 and composers include Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, George Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Other characterizations include emphatic, imitative and expressive gestures, all used to elicit an emotional response from the audience.

“It has many faces; it’s about fun, sex, love, high energy,” Klíma said. “The main difference (between Baroque and other opera) is in the script, it’s not as easy as in a classic opera; the story is something. The Baroque era was crazy and it can be seen in their operas. Classic opera is more about singing, but here it is more visual and the singers like to work with the audience.”

There are four groups of musicians participating in the festival, and Klíma said they were chosen because “they are the best, professional and a good choice to make this a unique festival in Prague.” Ensemble Damien (whose artistic director is Hanzlík) has been focusing on interpreting Baroque and minimalist music since its founding in 1995, with a special eye to Bohemian and Moravian pieces.

Hof-musici specializes in the interpretation of Baroque music using period instruments; they focus mainly on Italian operas. Vox Nymburgensis is a mixed chamber choir whose talents range from Gregorian chants to Baroque compositions. Vivaldi Orchesta Praga is a chamber orchestra that also interprets Baroque music using period instruments.

Hanzlík oversaw all the productions, including the score, costumes and stage decoration. “We are not theater, so the work involved a relatively small circle of associates,” he said. “It has the advantage of consistency of ideas and undivided energy.”

Opera world premiere

Probably the most anticipated event of the festival is the contemporary world premiere of an opera by Vivaldi: “L’Unione della Pace, e di Marte.” This is a specific type of Baroque opera known as a serenata. A shorter opera based on allegorical themes, they were usually performed for special occasions in royal or aristocratic families. This piece was originally performed in Venice in 1727 to honor the birth of twin daughters to the French King Louis XV.

While the complete libretto was kept and is preserved in the National Library in Milan, the score was always believed to have been lost. Conductor and composer Ondřej Macek analyzed the text and recognized some of the music from Vivaldi’s other operas, “Orlando furioso” and “Farnace.” With this information, he was able to reconstruct the piece, and it will be played for the first time on July 4.

“The fact is that this is something unique, makes it more interesting for everyone,” said Klíma. “There aren’t so many operas by Vivaldi; people who are interested in opera, baroque and classical music will of course be interested, but also people looking for something new.”

Hanzlík, for one, is looking forward to the show. “Every renewed premiere is a lottery and no one knows before the show whether the effort associated with restoring an old score will be a success,” he said. “But Vivaldi is a guarantee of great music.”

Klíma tentatively is giving the festival an early thumbs up; pleased with the response they have received.

“I was really surprised at the opening, that it’s not just me who is a fan and understands Baroque opera, but many people in Prague, ambassadors, politicians, ministers,” he said. “It’s a good start that many people and not just me and the staff enjoy it.”

The garden setting combined with the high caliber performances equals a relaxed summer culture treat.

“I do not live in Prague and due to the performances I now have more of an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere,” Hanzlík said. “Every evening at Ledebour Garden is different even if it’s the same opera. Prague is the most beautiful city in the world and that its center can celebrate this unique music is just simultaneously an honor and a joy.”