It would be safe to say that even for those who count Antonín Dvořák as one of their favorite composers, they’d be surprised to learn that he wrote fourteen operas. The Devil and Kate, first performed in Prague in 1899, was written after his hugely successful — personally and professionally — stay in the United States. It is a fanciful folk tale that is farcical, funny, fantastic and brimming with Dvořák’s characteristic style.
Professional opera companies that need to keep an eye on the bottom line are reluctant to take chances on works that fall out of the core repertory — even when composed by one of the greatest and most accessible composers. Fortunately, there are funded learning institutions that can roll the musical dice and resurrect unjustifiably neglected works. The North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA) is such an institution, and we are all the beneficiaries of their adventurousness. The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the NCSA first presented The Devil and Kate at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem then traveled east to Raleigh for two shows at the Fletcher Opera Theater — Progress Energy Center. It was here, along with a few other hearty souls, where I had the welcome experience of hearing music by a master composer that was completely new to me.
This is a huge and complex production — in some respects even more so than their record breaking run of West Side Story in May, 2007. There are twelve leads, named roles, a chorus of about 35, three major scene changes and a pit orchestra that is the size of many symphony orchestras. Considering the smallish stage, the fact that they had to accommodate this reduction in space from the huge Stevens Center auditorium, this is a minor miracle in itself. Despite the grandiosity of the assembled forces, and the fact that hell and the devil play a central role, this production had a feeling of lightness, wit and ease.
The three acts can almost be broken off as independent works as they are quite different musically and theatrically. The story begins in a small Bohemian village during a fair. The entire chorus is on stage, and with their brightly colored peasant costumes along with a similar set design, I couldn’t help think of “It’s a Small World” at Disney World. The basic premise of the first act, the avoidance of the perpetually gabbing girl, could easily be construed as sexist, but in these modern times could handily be applied to either cell phone talking gender. The parts of Kate, Kate’s mother and the shepherd Jirka were rotated and tonight Kate was sung by Stephanie Davis. She had an effusive Broadway-style stage presence and voice that was perfect for the girlish naiveté central to her role. My one real problem with this production was the mix of this type of voice with grand opera Wagnerian pipes like Nichole Annis as the Princess in Act III.
In the second act we all go on a trip to Hell — a most delightful place and by far the most effective act of the opera. Card playing devils (men only), Lucifer in pajamas and a wonderfully hellish set design make this worth the price of admission. Kyle Guglielmo as Lucifer is magnificent and shows up as perhaps the best pure actor of the entire cast. The story gets fleshed out here with multiple angles regarding Kate, the Princess and the Shepherd before we get transported back to Bohemia for Act III. For a detailed synopsis, go to th[e] excellent Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Devil_and_Kate.
The third act is the weakest of the three, especially the overlong soliloquy and arias of the Princess that take up nearly the first 15 minutes. The entire chorus eventually reassembles and, as is always the case, they live reasonably happy ever after.
Even a seasoned and professional opera company would probably not attempt to sing this in its original Czech, and this was sung in the English translation by Ian Gledhill. The diction was inconsistent: with most singers, you could understand every word as opposed to some where you wished there was supratitles. The student orchestra, conducted by James Albritten, played at the level of any world-class opera orchestra. This was an extremely difficult score that these remarkable young musicians played with confidence, authority and maturity.
This was a grand collaborative enterprise between The School of Music and the School of Design and Production at the NCSA. John Mauceri, Chancellor of this world-renown arts institution, in his brief tenure has already made an enormous difference in the scope and professionalism of the school’s productions. Coming up is the world concert premiere of Dmitry Shostakovich’s score written for Russian director Grigori Kosintev’s 1964 film version of Hamlet — a once-in-a-lifetime event you do not want to miss. Details can be found here: http://www.ncarts.edu/pressreleases/Releases2008/Jan2008/hamlet.htm [inactive 8/09].