The history of former Eastern Bloc countries is replete with stories of oppression, large and small, that offer a window onto a world kept hidden from the West. One such incident occurred in December 1949 in the Bohemian village of Číhošť, where worshippers at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption thought they saw a crucifix on the altar move during Mass. The priest, Father Josef Toufar, did not. But word of a miracle quickly spread and became a flash point with the communist authorities.

Aleš Březina's Toufar © National Theatre, Prague
Aleš Březina's Toufar
© National Theatre, Prague

Six weeks later, they arrested Toufar and took him to a sanatorium in Prague where they beat a false confession out of him saying he had faked the miracle, and tortured him until he died. They then launched an elaborate and absurd propaganda campaign to defame the priest and justify their ruthless brutality.

This is the subject of Toufar, a chamber opera by Czech composer Aleš Březina that wrapped a successful first-year run at the National Theater on Saturday night. Originally commissioned for the Divadelná Nitra festival in Bratislava last fall, it features text drawn entirely from archival documentary materials and a modernist score that mixes strains of contemporary classical music, alternative music, sacred music, atmospherics and jazz. Legendary Czech opera star Soňá Červená takes the lead as the voice of communist officialdom, and countertenor Jan Mikušek plays the title character.

The early scenes of the opera set the historical stage: As the communist regime is starting to tighten its grip on Czechoslovakia, there is resistance from the church, a powerful force in a country that is still 65% Catholic. Proclamations from Archbishop Josef Beran and Pope Pius XII are intercut with dictates from the Communist Party, setting up an inevitable clash. Five teenage girls from the Kühn Children’s Choir clad in altar wear echo the clerics in angelic voices, providing a glowing counterpoint to the hard party line being drawn by a stern, glowering Červená, wearing a bureaucratic grey suit and red tie.

Toufar is heard before he is seen, allowing Mikušek ’s high, sweet tones to immediately establish vulnerability. The alleged miracle is not shown but described, mostly in the priest’s concern over its consequences. Seconds later, he is whisked away. In a deft turn, director Petr Zelenka transforms the angels into Toufar’s torturers, suddenly wearing suits identical to Červená’s and singing in voices like ice. The priest’s final screams are heard backstage as the character assassination begins up front, with a detailed description of his alleged hoax read to the audience.

Aleš Březina's Toufar © National Theatre, Prague
Aleš Březina's Toufar
© National Theatre, Prague

Červená then takes center stage as the Minister of Internal Affairs, hosting a press conference at which the actual propaganda film made by the communists to debunk the miracle is shown. Poorly made and patently absurd, it incited more skepticism than belief when it was shown in Czechslovak theaters, and quickly withdrawn. But here it is riveting, with Červená pacing in front of the screen and in increasingly apocalyptic tones tracing a line of conspiracy that reaches from Číhošť to evil capitalists in New York.

Toufar ends with the priest’s niece writing a letter to President Klement Gottwald asking what became of her uncle, and a final candlelit epitaph. But the audience is not let off easily. In the small theater where the piece was staged, viewers sat in wooden church pews. And at one precipitous moment, the spotlight was turned on them as if to ask, “where were you?” As the niece’s plaintive coda suggested, no one spoke out after their parish priest disappeared. And so totalitarianism gained another small foothold at a time when its ultimate stranglehold was still far from assured.

Watching Červená bring this to horrifying life was mesmerizing. A celebrated mezzo-soprano who escaped to the West in 1962 and spent most of her life and career abroad, she was not acting in portraying characters like Gottwald and Rudolf Slánský, the general secretary of the Communist Party. She was speaking from experience, as a survivor of their murderous regime. The mad gleam in her eye and impassioned insanity in her voice offered a chilling glimpse of her country’s recent history, all too real in its authenticity.

Never one to use music in a standard fashion, Březina modeled his score on Baroque opera, employing its formatted use of recitatives and arias to tell a story. He used just four instruments – bass clarinet, violin, electronic keyboard and percussion – to create rapidly shifting tones and moods of spirituality, suspense, pathos, terror, sadness and regret. “It’s a wild mix that constantly changes,” he said. “In fact, I wouldn’t call it opera. It’s a type of music theater that should be surprising every second.”

That it is. Toufar plays this summer in the Smetana’s Litomyšl festival in the Czech Republic and the Parallel Lives festival in Dresden, then returns to the National Theater repertoire in Prague in the fall. Still without surtitles, it can be tough going for non-Czech speakers. But some experiences transcend language and speak powerfully to universal human concerns. This is one of them.