The Czech Republic is celebrating the Year of Czech Music, a decennial observance of anniversaries ranging from Smetana’s birth (1824) to the founding of the Prague Symphony Orchestra (1934). For opera fans, this means an opportunity to see works seldom performed, even in the Czech lands. Case in point: Bohuslav Martinů’s Mirandolina, which was given a bright, spirited treatment at Prague’s Estates Theatre on Tuesday night.

Michal Křístek, Martin Gurbaľ, Kateřina Kněžíková, Josef Moravec © Martin Popelář
Michal Křístek, Martin Gurbaľ, Kateřina Kněžíková, Josef Moravec
© Martin Popelář

Composed in 1954 when Martinů was living in Nice, Mirandolina is a musical treatment of Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s 1753 comedy La locandiera (“The Mistress of the Inn”). The title character is a coquette who spends more time toying with her guests’ affections than minding the inn, and after juggling their advances for most of three acts, winds up in the arms of the hotel waiter Fabrizio. Dramatically, it’s a witty take on classic commedia dell’arte, sans the masks and with an unusually strong female protagonist. Musically, it’s an intriguing hybrid, with occasional spoken dialogue and a brisk, colorful 20th-century score.

The production in Prague originated at the National Theater satellite operation in Ostrava, northern Moravia, and came with an A-list cast and crew: soprano Kateřina Kněžíková in the title role, director Jiří Nekvasil, conductor Marko Ivanović and set designer Daniel Dvořák. The curtain opened on a spare set out of the 1950s, with a set of double swinging doors framed by vintage Eames chairs on risers, and a tree-sized chess rook piece towering in the background (a sly riff on the original knight character). The props were all in bold period pastels that changed hues under a framework of spotlights, mirroring the action and emotions onstage.

Agnieszka Bochenek-Osiecka (Mirandolina) © Martin Popelář
Agnieszka Bochenek-Osiecka (Mirandolina)
© Martin Popelář
Kněžíková, one of the National Theater’s most versatile and engaging singers, is a delightful comedic actress with a glowing, rounded voice who has graced many of the Mozart operas staged at the Estates Theater. Her character is the center around which the entire opera revolves, and she struck exactly the right tone – charming, scheming without seeming wicked, seductive in a wholesome girl-next-door way. The housewife dress with a petite little apron helped, as did her teasing, over-the-shoulder glances.

Bass Martin Gurbaľ and baritone Josef Moravec turned in serviceable performances as the Marquis and Count, respectively, vying for Mirandolina’s favor. But the prime male character in this production is the Cavaliere di Ripafratta (Jan Willem Baljet) – in Goldoni’s play, a knight resistant to the wiles of women who poses a challenge for Mirandolina. Nekvasil turned him into an insecure, overgrown adolescent frightened of the fair sex, which made for some good comic moments, particularly when he retreated to the safety of his rook treehouse. It worked less well in the final act, when the character gets his comeuppance. Mirandolina’s sudden rejection, aided by slapstick fisticuffs with the Marquis and Count, seemed more mean-spirited than well-deserved.

After fleeting appearances in the first two acts, Fabrizio steps into the spotlight in the third as a type of deus ex machina, an easy answer to the emotional complications that have been piling up (and in the original, a snub to nobility). Tenor Luciano Mastro made the most of his time, blossoming with a rich, strong voice that drew plaudits at the curtain calls. And the two actress characters, bit players who show up at the hotel in the second act and serve as consolation prizes for the Marquis and Count at the end, almost stole the show. They sing all their lines as a duet, and soprano Eva Dřízgová-Jirušová and alto Anna Nitrová’s voices were a perfect fit, light, lyrical and mischievous.

Václav Morys (Servant), Michal Křístek (Di Rippafratta) © Martin Popelář
Václav Morys (Servant), Michal Křístek (Di Rippafratta)
© Martin Popelář
Always looking to add some spice, Nekvasil used a sextet of female dancers in black bodysuits to fill some of the scene transitions and breaks, a bit of eye-catching burlesque that seemed out of step with the rest of the production. He also stopped the action in occasional freeze frames, another clever visual device that was a questionable thematic fit. Otherwise he kept everything moving at a lively pace, befitting an opera with very few set pieces and arias. Even those are brief, in the spirit of a comic romp.

Ivanović set the tempo and tone with the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre orchestra, which gave a buoyant, sparkling performance. Their frothy sound was punctuated by flashes of color in the horns and sharp shots of percussion that added dimension to the characters and impact to their acting. The woodwinds were particularly good, giving the music an effervescent glow.

Because of its source material, Mirandolina is usually described as a Rossini-style frolic. But that takes away from the genius of Martinů’s music, which incorporates a dazzling array of 20th-century sounds and influences without becoming weighty or overbearing. For the worldliest of Czech composers, who added an original contribution to virtually every genre he assayed, it’s another gem that puts an early gleam on what should be a very interesting year of music.

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