An enduring mystery in the Czech lands surrounds Schwanda the Bagpiper (Švanda dudák), a folk opera by Jaromír Weinberger. When it premiered in Prague in 1927, the reception was decidedly lukewarm and its run was short. But as soon as Schwanda was staged abroad, it became enormously popular, translated into 17 languages, making its way to Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. Why such a deeply Czech piece failed to find a footing in its homeland has never been fully explained, but a flamboyant new production at the National Theater does its best to make up for the lost time and status.
Schwanda is a well-known figure in Czech folklore, a wandering minstrel who brought laughter and gaiety wherever he went – and in some versions of the story, magic with the music of his enchanted bagpipes. The opera pairs him with Babinský, a legendary Robin Hood figure with a conniving heart of gold. Schwanda has been married to Dorotka for all of a week when Babinský lures him away for adventures in the wide world, where his music frees a queen from an evil spell. In gratitude the queen proposes marriage, an attractive offer until Dorotka appears and Schwanda ends up in hell for his infidelity. It takes a brazen rescue by Babinský, who wagers their souls in a game of cards with the devil, to free Schwanda and reunite him with Dorotka.
Director Vladimír Morávek tells this story with a large cast that spills off the stage onto walkways, into the loges and hallways, even outside before the performance starts. Martin Chocholoušek's sets are equally outsized and constantly in motion, Zimula Sylva Hanáková's costumes exaggerated and outrageous, and with everyone in whiteface the effect is not so much a fairy tale as a circus. Or a barnyard. For most of the first act the stage is filled with actors in chicken costumes clucking and pecking away, an amusing but ultimately distracting addition. Especially with the lead cockerel, a rubbery actor named David Bosh, front and center much of the time showing more emotion than the singers.
Bosh morphs in puzzling ways. In the queen’s court he becomes a Scottish-costumed bagpiper who plays the music that breaks the spell, then collapses in distress when Schwanda gets the credit. In hell, he’s a joker (from a deck of cards), and before each scene he comes out in front of the curtain in a basket, bantering with the audience. All of which detracts from the story, like the dozens of extras constantly filtering across the stage in slo-mo choreography. Or flying through the air. And what’s up with the big blue bunnies? It’s like watching two different productions that have crashed into each other and are trying to sort themselves out.