As wacky backstories go, itʼs hard to top the tale of Dvořákʼs second opera, Král a uhlíř (King and Charcoal Burner). The composer wrote two versions of the opera, the first in 1871, when he was still eking out a living as a violist at Pragueʼs Provisional Theater, the forerunner of the National Theater. The score, described by a critic as a “polyphonic melange” of Wagnerian dimensions, gave the singers fits. “Each individual clutched his part in despair, mercilessly shrieking out their notes, shattering the billowing air around them,” the critic wrote after watching a rehearsal. “The conductor leapt from his chair in fury and thrashed his baton around like a man possessed, but all effort was in vain.”

Tomáš Brauner conducts the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra © Petra Hajská
Tomáš Brauner conducts the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Petra Hajská

The conductor preparing the piece was none other than Bedřich Smetana, who could see that it wouldnʼt work, but soldiered on so as not to discourage the young composer. Finally, after six fruitless weeks, he told Dvořák that he had other operas to prepare. The score was put on a shelf, where it gathered dust for two years before being returned to the composer.

But there are two happy endings to this story. Far from discouraged, Dvořák retained the libretto and wrote an entirely new score, which was well-received. The November 1874 premiere was a success, and that version stayed in the National Theater repertoire into the 1950s. And this year the Dvořákʼs Prague festival revived the original version with a concert performance featuring Tomáš Brauner leading the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir and a tasty sampling of some of the countryʼs top opera singers.

<i>King and Charcoal Burner</i> in Prague © Petra Hajská
King and Charcoal Burner in Prague
© Petra Hajská

The story is a trifle about a king who gets lost hunting in the woods, is mistaken for a commoner and moves unknown among his subjects, inadvertently getting involved in a love triangle before revealing himself and setting everything right. Of more import is the origin of the story, which was drawn from puppet theater, a thriving and important art form in 19th-century Bohemia. Nationalistic elements held great appeal for audiences used to a steady diet of German and Italian opera, as evinced by the spectacular success of Smetanaʼs Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) in 1866.

At this remove, itʼs hard to understand what tied the performers in knots. There are challenging polyphonic passages in the ensembles, but most of the vocals sound conventional and very much in keeping with the period, especially the arias, some of which might have been lifted from Mozart or Verdi. The truly difficult parts fall mostly to the choir, which starts at maximum volume early in the first act and stays there for much of the evening. The Prague Philharmonic Choir, which has never met a score it couldnʼt master, did a superb job, providing vibrant backup for the singers, thundering accompaniment for the orchestra and sharp, shimmering work in the complex choral sections.

Itʼs also puzzling to read denunciations of the music as too Wagnerian. To modern ears most of the score seems solidly and unabashedly Romantic – there are even occasional bird calls. What stands out is Dvořákʼs endless gift for melodic invention. This is well-known and rightly praised in his more famous works, but to hear it in such profusion in an early, obscure piece is breathtaking. Itʼs like divine inspiration, certainly more refined as he grows and develops as a composer, but there from the very beginning.

Kateřina Kněžíková © Petra Hajská
Kateřina Kněžíková
© Petra Hajská

Where the Wagnerian criticism seems justified is in the operaʼs length – three and a half hours, including two intermissions – and melodramatic overtones. Even the most mundane exchanges trigger hosanna-sized blasts from the choir. This makes for scintillating opening and closing scenes, but doesnʼt give the singers much chance to be heard.

In the quieter moments, Jozef Benci (as the collier, or charcoal burner), Kateřina Kněžíková (his daughter), Lucie Hilscherová (his wife), Josef Moravec and Jana Sibera (courtiers) showed the fine skills that have made them stars on Central European stages. Both Roman Hoza (the king) and Richard Samek (the daughterʼs boyfriend) started slow, picking up strength and volume in the later acts, but never developing the swagger those characters demand. In general the performances were leaden, more in keeping with an oratorio than an opera. This is a built-in handicap of doing a concert performance, but Benci offered a convincing demonstration of how to lend dramatic impact to a stationary role.

One might have wished for more clarity from the orchestra, which at times sounded thick and one-dimensional. Overall, however, Brauner did an impressive job of pulling together an often disparate rush of sounds. And like the singers, when the orchestra wasn't competing for sonic space, the results were glowing, colorful and richly evocative. It may have taken 148 years, but Král a uhlíř finally got the loving care and attention it deserved.

****1