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.

Jiří Brückler (Schwanda)
© Ilona Sochorová

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.

Jiří Sulženko (The Devil)
© Serghei Gherciu

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.

David Bosh
© Ilona Sochorová

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.

Jana Šrejma Kačírková (Dorotka), Martin Bárta and Vít Šantora (Soldiers)
© Serghei Gherciu

Until the second act, when the action moves to hell and the singers finally have some space. Jiří Sulženko played the gruff devil for laughs, an affable, not very bright adversary who turned out a generous loser. After a weak showing in the first act, Martin Šrejma (Babinský) found his voice and developed some swagger, which is critical – the title notwithstanding, he’s the driving force in the opera. Jiří Brückler was a tepid Schwanda, though to be fair, that was largely a function of this production, in which he doesn’t even get to pick up and play his bagpipes until he’s leaving hell. His heartfelt aria of longing for Dorotka earlier in the second act drew appreciative applause.

The women were better. As Dorotka, Jana Šrejma Kačírková filled her scenes with full but tender vocals, offering a note-perfect portrayal of a wronged, wounded woman. Ester Pavlů was a forbidding ice-hearted queen, a bit too stiff at times, but warm and inviting in a duet with Brückler after the spell is broken, then fearsome minutes later, after learning that he’s already married.

Jiří Brückler (Schwanda), Martin Šrejma (Babinský) and Jiří Sulženko (The Devil)
© Ilona Sochorová

Arguably the strongest vocals of the evening came from the National Theater Chorus, which was split up, with some singers onstage and others in loges along both sides of the main floor. Their positioning added even more intensity to a very sharp performance of richly shaded entreaties and Greek chorus-style commentary. Under the baton of Zbyněk Müller, the National Theater Orchestra offered lively and insightful accompaniment. There is not an emotion or event in the entire opera that is not musically underscored, a modern, almost cinematic touch vividly realized, perhaps too much at times. High-volume blasts for minor plot turns tended to render them absurd.

But never mind. Schwanda is back where he belongs, in an extravagant if muddled production enthusiastically embraced by a Czech audience. And lest anyone think his furry bagpipe, a Central European version of the instrument called a bock, was merely a prop, a musician came out during intermission to play it and sing some charming folk songs. That’s entertainment.