Virtually unknown throughout the rest of the world, Krakatit is a familiar tale in the Czech lands. Karel Čapekʼs popular 1922 novel was made into a film in 1948 and an opera that premiered on Czechoslovak Television in 1961. Revived from the National Theater archives this season, his prescient morality play has lost nothing in either impact or relevance.

<i>Krakatit</i> © Hana Smejkalová
Krakatit
© Hana Smejkalová

Čapek was in bad shape when he wrote Krakatit, caught between conflicting love affairs with two younger women and battling Bekhterevʼs disease, a common name for a debilitating form of arthritis. These personal travails are wound deep into the novel, the story of an inventor who creates an explosive so powerful it can destroy the world. Told in a shifting series of hazy memories, fever dreams and snippets of reality, Engineer Prokopʼs increasingly frantic attempts to keep his invention from falling into the wrong hands play out like a nightmare suffused with eroticism and catastrophe.

For her 21st-century version of the opera, Czech stage and film director Alice Nellis has constructed a new framework drawing directly on Krakatitʼs literary roots. It opens with a short play (written by Nellis) depicting Čapekʼs visit to a Prague literary salon where he has a series of abusive encounters, mainly with his two jealous, hectoring love interests, then faints. The salon fades and the body on the floor – tenor Josef Moravec – becomes Prokop in the opening of the opera, lying unconscious on the street. In the final scene the transformation is reversed, in essence casting the entire story as Čapekʼs fever dream.

<i>Krakatit</i> © Hana Smejkalová
Krakatit
© Hana Smejkalová

What initially seems to be a cinematic gimmick develops disturbing depth as the people at the party reappear as characters in the opera, giving it a surreal quality. Strong acting and singing (along with a lot of dry ice smoke) reinforce the effect, in particular by Lucie Hájková as spiteful girlfriend Olga and innocent maiden Anči, and Alžbĕta Poláčková as refined girlfriend Věra and the lustful, scheming Princess.

The strongest and most important qualities of the opera are preserved intact. One is the sense of Cold War dread that permeates every scene, as a ruthless competitor, avaricious arms dealer and mad group of anarchists all vie for control of the explosive, which goes off several times. The biggest explosion is portrayed as a mushroom cloud rising in fearsome majesty while Prokop and the Princess embrace in its angry red glow. Sex, death and the still-present threat of nuclear annihilation were never so tightly bound.

Josef Moravec (Prokop) and Alžběta Poláčková (Princess) © Hana Smejkalová
Josef Moravec (Prokop) and Alžběta Poláčková (Princess)
© Hana Smejkalová

And Václav Kašlíkʼs music is stunning. A conductor, theater impresario and occasional composer, Kašlík was catholic in his tastes and saw nothing wrong with using what he called “the language of the 20th century” in his work. Krakatit is a through-composed work of musical dialogue modeled after Janáček and Stravinsky, mixing elements of classicism, electronics and popular idioms to create atmosphere and propel the narrative. The score even includes markings like Tempo di Blues. Conductor Petr Kofroň, who expertise is modern music, does a masterful job bringing to life the cacophony of tense strings, strident horns and special effects.

If this sounds like a lot to keep up with, it is, especially for viewers not familiar with the source material and Čapekʼs work and life. Nellis adds to the complexity by layering in a multimedia stream of references and symbols. Prokopʼs amorous encounters with the Princess, for instance, are dominated by projections of galloping horses. This makes sense if you know that Čapekʼs real-life girlfriend Věra Hrůzová was an avid equestrian, and noticed her riding whip as the Princess. Otherwise, the images are confusing and distracting. If itʼs possible to have too much of a good thing, this production is a prime example.

Alžběta Poláčková (Princess) © Hana Smejkalová
Alžběta Poláčková (Princess)
© Hana Smejkalová

As for the title, it refers to the explosive, named by Prokop after the eruption of Krakatoa, at that time the biggest and most violent explosion in recorded history. Itʼs chilling to see how a sci-fi concept in the 1920s morphed perfectly into the nuclear horrors of the 1950s and ʼ60s, and now the threat of terrorist bombs going off anywhere, at any time. Prague has fortunately not been a target, at least as of this writing. But the explosions that rip through Krakatit and the sense of dread and doom it invokes offer a visceral reminder that violence in its many forms is never far away.