From the Archives: Czech Opera at the Met
By Peter Clark
The Czech National Revival movement of the late 19th century produced three leading composers whose operas would eventually join Italian, German, and French works that historically comprised the standard international repertory. Works by all three composers—Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, and Leoš Janáček—slowly but gradually gained acceptance at the Metropolitan, though the original Czech-language versions only arrived very late, if at all.
Dvořák, who lived in New York from 1892 to 1895 teaching, composing, and conducting, was a known quantity at the Met. Conductor Anton Seidl, who, in addition to leading Wagner operas at the Met for many years also conducted many Sunday evening concerts in the 1890s with the Met Orchestra, championed his symphonic works. He frequently programmed some of Dvořák’s best-known pieces such as the Slavonic Dances, Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), and Carnival Overture.
The first Czech opera performed by the Met was Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (Prodaná Nevěsta) in 1909 (pictured below), conducted by Gustav Mahler and sung in German. As the Czech homelands of Bohemia, Moravia, and a sliver of Silesia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918—where the dominant language was German—the Czech composer’s operas were generally given in German when they were performed outside of their native land.
As it happened, the Met was able to provide several native-born Bohemians for the 1909 premiere of Smetana’s opera. Mahler, in fact, was born in Bohemia, though his family were German speakers, and Emmy Destinn, known in Czech as Ema Destinnová, sang the lead soprano lead role of Mařenka. Destinn had made a triumphant Met debut earlier that season in the title role of Aida, in a new production that opened the era of Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s management of the company. And finally, the dancer Ottokar Bartik choreographed the important dance sequences that imparted an authentic Czech atmosphere to The Bartered Bride. The opera was well received, with critic Pitts Sanborn writing in The Globe, “After hearing the work one could but wonder why no one produced it here decades ago … The music is an almost continuous delight. The score beams with captivating melody.” It was given eleven times that season including on tour, was repeated in the three following seasons, and given a new production in 1926 with the Moravian soprano Maria Müller. Translated into English in 1936, The Bartered Bride was regularly revived through 1942 (a performance from the 1940–41 season is pictured at the top of this page), with yet another Czech soprano, Jarmila Novotna, featured in the title role for its later revivals.
There was then a 36-year hiatus for The Bartered Bride, which finally returned in a 1978 new production (pictured above) conducted by James Levine with an all-star cast, including Teresa Stratas, Nicolai Gedda, Jon Vickers, and Martti Talvela. That production, still officially in the Met repertory though last revived during the 1996–97 season, was also sung in English. Alone among the Czech operas at the Met, The Bartered Bride has never been sung in its original language.
Czech opera at the Met has often depended on creating an opportunity for a star singer to interpret a favorite role. This was the case with Janáček’s opera Jenůfa, which had its U.S. premiere at the Met in 1924 as a vehicle for the Moravian-born soprano Maria Jeritza (pictured above). Sung in German, the opera featured Jeritza in the title role and Margarete Matzenauer as Kostelnicka, under the baton of Artur Bodanzky. Less traditional, both musically and dramatically, than The Bartered Bride, Jenůfa was not well received on its first New York hearing. “Why Mr. Gatti-Casazza ever came to look hopefully upon Jenůfa would be a mystery if one did not happen to think that he has in his company a Bohemian conductor [Bodanzky, who was Viennese], a Bohemian ballet master [Bartik] who, nevertheless, is given to offering advice, and a Moravian prima donna [Jeritza],” wrote critic Irving Weil in The Evening Journal. While Jenůfa’s story of a murdered baby seems to have shocked contemporary New York critics, it is perhaps equally shocking for us to read their reviews, which describe Janáček’s powerful score as “colorless” and that of an “amateur.” Certainly no one thinks that today. But in spite of Jeritza’s popularity, the first Met Jenůfa production only lasted one season. The opera finally returned in a 1974 in a new production with Teresa Kubiak, Astrid Varnay, and Jon Vickers, sung in English and conducted by John Nelson.
But it was not until a 1992 revival, in the original Czech, with electrifying performances from Gabriela Beňačková in the title role and Leonie Rysanek (pictured below) as Kostelnicka, that the full potential of Janáček’s opera reached a Met audience. Describing Rysanek’s bow at the final curtain, critic Martin Mayer wrote in Opera magazine, “the house did raise a universal shout that made great Hudson, if I may, tremble neath her banks to hear the replication of their sound. I’ve never heard anything quite like it at the Met.” Since then, another new production of Jenůfa has further cemented the opera’s place in the Met repertory. Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, first as the title character and in a later revival as Kostelnicka, has followed in her famous predecessors’ footsteps in making Jenůfa a drawing card. The original Czech is now firmly established as the language for Jenůfa at the Met.
Of Janáček’s nine operas, three more in addition to Jenůfa have been performed at the Met. In 1991, his Káťa Kabanová premiered, conducted by a noted authority on the composer’s music, Charles Mackerras. It was the first opera to be sung in Czech at the Met. Beňačková sang the title role with Rysanek as Kabanicha, the two sopranos again winning plaudits for their intense performances, and Jonathan Miller’s production made a strong case for the piece. Revivals of Káťa Kabanová have been sporadic (including one in 2004, pictured below), and unfortunately the most recent one, planned for 2020, had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rusalka, the only one of Dvořák’s ten operas to be performed at the Met, had its premiere in 1993, sung in Czech. Beňačková, who had triumphed as Jenůfa and Káťa, sang the title role to much acclaim, with Dolora Zajick as Ježibaba and Neil Rosenshein as the Prince, under the baton of John Fiore. The romantic, fairy-tale production by Otto Schenk and designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen added considerably to the work’s success. Subsequently, American soprano Renée Fleming made a specialty of the title role, and Rusalka was revived for her four times over the next two decades, including in 2014 (pictured below), when Piotr Beczała sang the Prince and Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted. One of those performances was transmitted around the world as part of The Met: Live in HD series. A new production by Mary Zimmerman in 2017, conducted by Mark Elder and featuring Kristine Opolais in the title role, gave Rusalka a new lease on life at the Met.
Janáček’s The Makropulos Case (Več Makropulos) had one of the most troubled premieres in Met history, though none of the problems involved the opera itself. At the work’s scheduled opening on January 5, 1996, soprano Jessye Norman (pictured below) was to sing the leading role under the baton of David Robertson. But several minutes into the beginning of the opera, tenor Richard Versalle, singing the role of Vitek and perched on a ladder, suffered a sudden fatal heart attack and plunged to the stage. As the audience sat in stunned shock, the curtain was quickly lowered and the performance canceled. Then, just before the second performance on January 8, New York was hit with a blinding blizzard that knocked out transportation lines and necessitated a second cancellation. Finally on January 11, the premiere took place. Singing in English, Norman had a triumph playing, naturally enough, the diva Emilia Marty, her “majestic singing enveloping the theater,” (Andrew Clark, Financial Times).
When The Makropulos Case returned in 1998 with Catherine Malfitano as Emilia, conducted by Mackerras, it was in Czech, as it was again in 2012 with Mattila in the prima donna role and Jiři Bělohlávek, music director of the Prague Philharmonia, conducting.
The most recent Czech opera to join the Met repertory was Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu). Legendary French director Patrice Chéreau made his Met debut with a searing production of the austere opera set in a prison (pictured below). Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen also made his Met debut leading an ensemble of singing-actors in an intense Czech-language performance. Musically and dramatically, the difficult work had a strong impact. Writing in Opera News, Fred Cohn wrote: “At the end, after a roaring ovation greeted the cast and the creative team, came the last and most inevitable of the evening’s coups de theatre: the house lights came up, bringing us back to quotidian reality. We were back in the spot where we’d started, 100 minutes earlier. But we had most definitely been taken on an enthralling journey.”
In addition to works by the famous trio of composers mentioned above, it is interesting to note that the Met produced one work by a now-forgotten Czech composer. Jaromir Weinberger was born in Prague where he studied at the Conservatory, before moving to the United States in 1922 to teach at Cornell University and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. He then returned to Czechoslovakia and, in 1926, composed an opera, Schwanda the Bagpiper, which had considerable success in Europe. In 1931, the Met produced Schwanda in German under the baton of Bodanzky, with Friedrich Schorr, a famous Wotan, in the title role and Maria Müller in the soprano lead. There were some favorable notices, such as Sanborn’s in The World Telegram: “The first performance in America of a German version of the Czech opera Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan showed it both as a score overflowing with catchy music and as a fantastically entertaining play.” Nevertheless, Schwanda disappeared from the repertory after only seven performances. Weinberger returned to the United States in 1939 to escape the Nazis. The Polka and Fugue from Schwanda is still occasionally played on orchestral programs.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.