A bond across seasons and generations was forged at the opening concert of the Dvořákʼs Prague Festival this year with a luminous performance of the composerʼs Stabat Mater. The piece was last heard at the Rudolfinum just three months earlier, staged by the Czech Philharmonic as an emotional farewell to the orchestraʼs chief conductor and music director, Jiří Bělohlávek, who died in May. With an all-Czech cast of singers and Jakub Hrůša at the podium, that performance was a swirl of dark currents, sensitively rendered, deeply emotional and colored by a sorrowful sense of letting go.

© Petra Hajska
© Petra Hajska

From the opening sustained F sharp, invoked by Dvořák as an image of the cross, this version signaled a new beginning – more noble than mournful, brighter in tone and ultimately triumphant. The resurgent spirit also reflected the cast, with French conductor Emmanuel Villaume leading PKF Prague Philharmonia, and a backbone of Czech singers supplemented by two world-class voices from the opera houses, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and German bass René Pape.

Candles arrayed across the emporium overlooking the stage set an elegiac atmosphere (partly for Czech Television, which was broadcasting the concert live), but Villaume had different ideas for the score. Itʼs typical of non-Czech conductors to give Dvořákʼs work comparatively brisk, upbeat treatment, and that was certainly the case in this interpretation. Along with being a versatile symphonic orchestra leader, Villaume is also a longtime opera conductor, a skill evident in his pacing, superb balance of voices and music, and seamless transitions from thundering choral movements to meditative vocal solos. He was particularly good at creating contrasting tonal backgrounds for the singers. 

Emmanuel Villaume © Petra Hajska
Emmanuel Villaume
© Petra Hajska

The Czech Philharmonic Choir provided a magnificent anchor, opening with a commanding sound and maintaining a mesmerizing intensity throughout the piece. Many choral groups can crank up the volume, but few with the elegance and richness of this ensemble, which offers vocal shadings in almost every passage and a consistently crisp delivery. At times the power was almost too much, especially in a magisterial work that is as much about dignified forbearance as emotional anguish. But in the softer middle sections the choir showed a fine sense of dynamics and native feel for the folk rhythms. 

Among the soloists, Pape made the strongest impression, his deep mahogany timbre serving as a foundation for the quartet of voices, and anyone used to hearing him sing stereotypically dark roles like Mefistofele would have been surprised by the tenderness in his voice. Opolais won Czech hearts with her performance in the title role of Rusalka in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast earlier this year, but her glowing voice and passionate style worked less well here, often overpowering rather than blending with the other singers. An adjustment for the hall and the piece would have made a big difference. 

René Pape © Petra Hajska
René Pape
© Petra Hajska

The local voices belonged to Czech tenor Richard Samek, a last-minute substitute for an ailing Piotr Beczala, and Slovak mezzo Jana Kurucová. Both did capable work, not in the class of Pape and Opolais, but with the trade-off of singing in their own language, offering clear articulation and strong expression. 

As a matter of taste, the Stabat Mater should perhaps be more somber and measured than it was in this performance. But the melodic flow of the work, especially in the choral Tui nati vulnerati movement and tenor aria Fac me vere, tecum flere, is hard to resist, especially with the vivid colors and buoyant sound Villaume favors. And after the piece roared to a resounding climax, there were a few moments of absolute silence as the audience held its breath and then collectively exhaled – a sure sign that everyone, whatever their tastes, had gone along for an exhilarating ride.