Advent 2009, National Theatre, Prague, Jiří Bělohlávek conducting.
In short, it was a night to remember. Few works are as overwhelming as this masterpiece by Martinů. It is beyond me why it is so underperformed. Let me quote here the program:
"Its central theme, inspired by medieval miracle plays and legends, is the benevolence and compassionateness of the Virgin Mary, and in the wider sense (and above all) womanhood – wise, foolish, sinful, vain, affectionate, self-sacrificing, munificent..."
The opera comprises of four parts: The Wise and Foolish Wirgins, Mariken of Nimégue, The Nativity and Sister Pascaline. It is based on medieval liturgical plays, which developed as detours from the Christmas story and were the first plays in the area of the Czech lands. Martinů used all forms of performing art - solo voice, choir, spoken word and ballet.
The first mini-story seems a bit out of place here. Based on an Old French liturgical play, it's a story of virgins awaiting the groom - Christ. They are to keep their laps lit, but some of them fall asleep and the oil in their lamps dries out. They beg their friends for oil, they beg the merchants with oil, but to no avail. They are damned without mercy. Considering the Christian view on the forgiving God, and the three remaining parts, it is truly surprising. The only explanations I can see are that it is either on a higher level of symbolism than we presume on the first sight, or just to scare people from falling into sin too easily.
All three stories are about women gone astray, but Virgin Mary helps them find the way. Mariken, both here and in the opera's source, an old Flemmish play, marries the Devil and lives with him for seven years. After seeing a Christmas play by a wandering group of actors about the forgiveness of Jesus, she suddenly understands and rejects Satan. He kills her, but her soul is saved.
The Nativity is highly inspired in folk traditions of the plays, depicturing Virgin Mary looking for a place to give birth to little Jesus. She is rejected both at the inn and in the smithy, so she goes to the barn. The blacksmith's one-armed daughter comes to see little Jesus, and her missing arm is restored by miracle. The blacksmith, upon seeing this, is sorry that he didn't help Virgin Mary earlier.
Sister Pascaline, not getting any escapes from the monastery to live with her beloved, but Devil kills him and arranges that it looks like Pascaline is the murderer. She is to be burnt at stake, but Virgin Mary saves her. When Pascaline returns to the monastery, she is told that sister Pascaline never left. It was Virgin Mary who back then took her habit, so that the sisters wouldn't know about her past, now giving it back to her. Pascalina, moved by Mary's mercy, gives her soul up for God.
The stories might be simple, but the opera is not. Martinů used French miracles, folk Moravian poetry, liturgical texts and Psalms. The opera itself is highly modern, primarily in its main concept and its approach to metaphor. A recurring character, joining all four parts, is the spoken role of the Leader of the Play. It sounds almost like a miracle that Martinů managed to put all these pieces into a functioning opus, but the result is breathtaking.
The direction was again modern, BUT, this is a huge but, completely and utterly followed the music and the words - unlike what some of us has learnt to understand "modern direction". It was a solid counterpart of the composition itself. Only in one moment in the first part was I afraid that the director, Jiří Heřman, would fall into profanity, implying a mass rape of the "foolish virgins", but everything was calmed again without spoiling the atmosphere by anything unnecessarily violent (I feared for the many nuns in the audience, you know...). Jiří Heřman chose to work primarily with a set of different curtains AND light. Settings were changed simply by turning panels on the sides. The only props were tables on wheels. The resulting effect, though it can hardly be called "minimalistic", was just perfect.
Choreography, as much as I'm not too much into ballet, was extremely well done. Jan Kodet is arguably the best Czech choreographer, having worked with many Europian ballet companies.
As far as the voices go, nothing bad can be said. I was especially positively surprised by the low notes of the female protagonists. I can't complain about my turn of cast, being familiar with most of their names and voices from other operas. The actor Jakub Gottwald, playing the Leader of the Play, could be understood, even across music - a rare feat among today's actors, it seams.
Last, but not least - the music. Jiří Bělohlávek, what else can I say? The music just enwraps you, a magic happens and you are taken to another world. Perhaps I should only add that a special mention should go to the pianist, Libuše Klausová, and the violinist, along with the rest of the National Theatre Orchestra.
Overall, it was one of the most overwhelming opera experiences I've ever had. I almost don't know whether seeing it once in a lifetime is not enough - could another production ruin the memory of the experience? If opera houses are less focused on Verdis and Puccinis, we can find out, but once - it's a must.