A contemporary opera festival is not typically where one expects to get lessons in modern manners. And until this season, Prague was not typically a place one would go to hear contemporary opera. The National Theatre has changed all that with Opera Nova, a new biennial festival. The inaugural version offered a sampling of recent music theater works by Czech and Slovak composers, spiced with doses of Shostakovich, Josef Berg and Philip Glass. It was by turns mesmerizing, baffling, inventive and exhausting – in short, all the things an excursion into the musical avant-garde should be.

<i>Rules of Good Behavior</i> © Marek Olbrzymek
Rules of Good Behavior
© Marek Olbrzymek

The lessons in good manners came courtesy of Czech composer Michal Nejtek and librettist/director Jiří Adámek, who adapted French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarceʼs postmodern satire Rules for Good Manners in the Modern World. In seven sections of repetitive chants and sharp solo vocals, four singers – two sopranos, a mezzo and bass – run through a litany of life, from birth to death, that makes it all sound contrived and depressingly predictable. Life is “a row of things to be arranged,” and when genuine emotion threatens to break through, we are reminded that “It would be stupid to be overwhelmed/ With something so banal as feelings.”

The staging mirrors this, with a single set evoking a dreary living room of the 1960s, and costumes to match. The performers move like automatons most of the time, with the exception of an actor who appears variously as a cleric, cowboy, dancer in a tutu and veiled bride, for reasons not always clear. When he walked on stage repeatedly to take a pratfall, dust himself off and do it again, it seemed time to stop trying to decipher the symbolism, and simply appreciate the absurdity of moments like the cowboy warming himself by the image of a burning fireplace on a flat TV screen.

In contrast, the music was bright, propulsive and occasionally unsettling, essentially carrying the narrative. There was almost no accompaniment for the singers; mostly the score set mood and atmosphere, and marked passages of time. Nejtek is proficient in a variety of genres, and in this work he neatly combines neoclassicism and minimalism with elements of jazz and more than a little Frank Zappa. Conductor Pavel Šnajdr did fine work with a chamber orchestra, and the three female singers – Marta Reichelová, Daniela Straková-Šedrlová and Jitka Klečanská – brought vibrancy and color to an otherwise pallid stage. 

<i>Sternenhoch</i> © Patrik Borecký
© Patrik Borecký

Overall, the bookends for the festival were the strongest selections this year. It opened with the Bratislava-based Cluster Ensemble performing a variation on Glassʼs Music with Changing Parts. This version, Dance with Changing Parts, supplements the music with movement. First a fractured backdrop offered multiple video images of dancers striking abstract poses, then the dancers came onstage to gyrate in time to the rhythms. The former was more engaging than the latter, but the music was first-rate throughout, played with precision and a native feel one doesnʼt often encounter in Europe. 

The closing piece was Sternenhoch, Czech composer Ivan Acher and director Michal Dočekalʼs carnivalesque take on the twisted work of author Ladislav Klíma. It was an instant hit when it premiered in Prague two months ago, and the festival performance was sold out.

Other highlights included Slovak actress and director Sláva Daubnerováʼs treatment of the Shostakovich fragments Orango and Anti-Formalist Rayok, which has held up well in the four seasons itʼs been in the National Theatre repertoire. Lead singer Roman Janál, a mainstay baritone of the Czech opera scene, also showed his durability in Don Hrabal, a strong portrait of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. 

<i>Don Hrabal</i> © Hana Smejkalová
Don Hrabal
© Hana Smejkalová

And in the interesting-but-inscrutable category: A double bill of Bergʼs Euphrides at the Gates of Tymena and A Provisional Performance of the Opera Johannes Doctor Faust, which featured smart musical performances and live and dead animals; and Apolloopera, a choral work that demands both Slovak language skills and background knowledge of the event it commemorates, the Allied bombing of the Apollo refinery in Bratislava in June 1944.

In the end, the sum of the festival was greater than its parts, cutting across a wide variety of subject matter and musical genres, and showcasing an impressive new generation of Central European composers. Inevitably, the experimental nature of contemporary opera means that some ideas will work well, while others fall flat. But as Opera Nova convincingly demonstrated, for the sheer thrill of discovery, nothing can match it.