Set in 1793, Dvořks The Jacobin is a thinly veiled commentary on Czech politics in the 1880s and 90s. Taking place in Bohemia, it explores what happens when Bohu, the son of Count Vilm of Harasov who had fled to join the French Revolution, returns with his foreign wife, Julie. He has grown disillusioned with the prevailing Terror, but is still viewed as a dangerous Jacobin by his father, who has consequently disowned him and appointed the manipulative Adolf as his heir.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this performance was the strength of Jiř Bělohlveks conducting of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Dvořks music is full of boisterous celebratory anthems and Czech folk-style melodies, but underlying these are eerie tones suggesting fragility and unease. Bělohlvek brought out every last contrast, not to mention ounce of beauty, in a rendering as balanced as it was sumptuous.
The staged touches applied to this concert performance also enhanced the overall effect. The chorus faced the back to capture the sound of church-goers who would normally be offstage. When the Burgrave Filip and forester Jiř vied to dance with the beautiful Terinka they swapped places at their music stands accordingly. The Count entered ceremoniously through the auditorium with his bodyguard even searching an audience member, while a rehearsal of the schoolteacher Bendas serenade saw him temporarily taking over from Bělohlvek to conduct the BBC Singers, Trinity Boys Choir and Old Palace Chamber Choir! All of this perfectly complemented the humour of Dvořk and his librettist Marie Červinkov-Riegrov. Benda proclaims that even Mozart would have been proud of his composition, with a rehearsal of it seeing hails to the noble Lord interspersed with anxious cries about making mistakes.
If and its a big if there is a criticism of the evening it is that the truly outstanding vocal performances made the merely good ones feel ordinary in comparison. The highest accolades go to Dana Bureov who as Julie delivered singing of passion, intensity and beauty. She is closely followed by Svatopluk Sem as Bohu who produced a clean, direct, but wondrously expansive and resonant sound. It is just a shame that brilliantly delivered phrases can occasionally be followed by the odd underpowered note, but this was still a remarkable performance. Of the remainder, the best performances came from Jan Martinik as the Count, whose relatively light bass voice is perfectly suited to recalling memories of his son as a child, and Jozef Benci as the manipulative Filip. No-one, however, in the cast is weak, as demonstrated by Lucie Fier Silkenovs heartfelt singing as Terinka, Ale Vorčeks sensitive portrayal of Jiř, and Jaroslav Březinas perfectly captured sense of loveable pomposity as Benda.
Though both Scottish and Welsh National Opera have performed the work in the past twenty years, The Jacobin remains something of rarity in Britain, and I would love to see either the Royal Opera House or English National Opera mount a fully staged version. With an opera like this, there could be a thin dividing line between producing something that is delightfully witty or totally hammed, but for such a glorious piece it seems a risk worth taking.
This performance of The Jacobin will be broadcast at 14.00 on 9 February on BBC Radio 3.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk