During the second half of the 19th century the popularity of large scale choral works reached an all-time high in Europe with countless choral organizations popping up like daisies. In Vienna alone this period saw the rise of both the Singverein and the featured choir in this particular concert, the Wiener Singakademie, which were both established in 1858, just to name a few. This fever led to a rash of vocal and orchestral compositions including Antonin Dvořák’s Die Geisterbraut (aka The Spectre’s Bride) commissioned in 1883 for the Birmingham Musical Festival and performed there two years later, in 1885 after its première earlier the same year in Plzeň.

Cornelius Meister © Marco Borggreve
Cornelius Meister
© Marco Borggreve
The story comes from a widely distributed ghost story based on Svatebni kosile (literally, The Bride's Shirt), part of a collection entitled Kytice z povesti n’árodních written by the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben in 1773. In the ballad, a lovelorn maiden is finally reunited with her dead lover, who immediately tries to trick her into a midnight wedding at a graveyard after dragging her through muddy swamps filled with ghosts and howling animals. At each turn he encourages her to rid herself of signs of her faith; first her prayer book, then her rosary and finally the golden cross given to her by her mother are tossed away in turn by the ghost. Despite this, it is the girl’s faith which saves her in the end. Her prayers for salvation are answered and every rooster crows in unison, heralding the demise of her dead lover and his ghostly companions. Shreds of a white shirt lie on every gravestone as a reminder that if she had not had such strong faith her white limbs would have been ripped to pieces just like the shirt.

Though conductor Cornelius Meister might not have had the best feeling for the Czech language – some of the phrasing made less sense than I would have preferred – the sound of the orchestra in Dvořák’s lush scoring was realized beautifully by the Vienna Symphony. At times, however, there were balance issues, most noticeably in the final soprano solo, a quiet prayer to the Virgin Mary that was unfortunately rather covered by the orchestra. That being said, Meister did hold everything together admirably, and had at his disposal a brilliant team of soloists whose understanding of the language and idiom was very sound.

Soprano Simona Houda-Šaturová, singing the role of the innocent would-be bride, was a pleasant discovery for me. Her voice is clear, well-placed, and she had the possession to utilize it completely. She not only sang but also truly emoted the story. Her color and timbre mixed well with dynamite tenor Pavol Breslik, who gave the dead protagonist a seductive, romantic, nearly heroic quality, making the character more terrifying than if the vocal color had matched the text. Bass-baritone Adam Plachetka was an excellent narrator. The clarity of his diction combined with beautiful color and legato made a few of his scenes in combination with the choir absolute highlights. Hats off as well to the Singakademie and their artistic director, Heinz Ferlesch, who mastered Dvořák’s score with élan, playing ghosts and providing exposition, violent drama and righteous commentary.

This 80-minute unstaged mini-opera is so remarkably present in its construction and presentation that we left the hall with ghosts still whirling through our minds and the sound of roosters ringing in our ears. I could not help wondering how it was possible that nobody has turned this choral ballad into an animated piece yet. Dvořák truly was one of the most innovative, flexible and consistently high-quality composers of the romantic era, and this piece is a wonderful example of his ability to combine folkloric qualities with brilliant compositional technique – with the added bonus of a solid morality tale..