Rediscovered 'Betrothal in a Dream' has remarkable music and staging

January 16, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Washington Opera's gift for restoring interesting, if neglected, operas to the repertory is well-served in its current production of Hans Krasa's 1933 opera, "Betrothal in a Dream."

The opera, which is receiving its first American performances at the Kennedy Center, was a big hit in Prague. But the work of Czech Jews was banned after the Nazi takeover in 1938. Krasa died at Auschwitz in 1944.

The opera, assumed lost in the Holocaust, was rediscovered in Vienna a few years back by the young Israeli conductor Israel Yinon, who conducted its first revival in Prague in 1994 and is conducting its first American performances.

The opera, a setting of Dostoevsky's "Uncle's Dream," centers on the idealistic and beautiful Zina, who is persuaded by her overbearing mother, Marya Aleksandrovna, to dupe an elderly, much debilitated but very wealthy Prince into proposing to her. The Prince, whose libido is the only part of him unimpaired by age, eagerly becomes Zina's victim. But his treacherous nephew, Paul, schemes with Zina's even more villainous poor relation, Nastasya, to embarrass mother and daughter. Paul convinces the Prince, who cannot really differentiate between fantasy and reality, that he only dreamed he was betrothed to Zina. Nastasya cruelly arranges for the public humiliation of Zina and her mother.

Krasa makes things move swiftly, and his eclectic music -- which reflects France's "Les Six," Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss -- features a mastery of conversational style and a gift for depicting character.

There is some remarkable music in "Betrothal's" first half: an ingenious parody of "Casta Diva" from "Norma" lends itself to laughter at the same time that it serves to reveal the conflicting emotions of the characters; and a conspiratorial, patter duet between Paul and Nastasya, almost Rossinian in quality, closes Act I.

In Act II, however, the music really flowers: The melodies are more long-breathed; the social satire has more bite; and in the climax, the Prince, in a few moments of lucidity, touchingly forgives Zina with warmth and generosity sufficient to recall the reconciliations in the operas of Mozart and Strauss.

The staging of this "Betrothal" is sensational. Director Karel Drgac, the general manager of the Prague State Opera, has constructed a revolving set as economical as it is ingenious. Marya Aleksandrovna's house is constructed like a maze, filled with squares, that makes visibly dramatic not only the characters' isolation, but also their interconnectedness.

On Sunday afternoon, there was a strong and steady characterization, dramatically and musically, of the high-lying part of Zina by German soprano Brigitte Hahn; and a powerful, funny and moving portrayal of the Prince by Czech baritone Peter Parsch. The wobble in Mildred Tyree's voice did not prevent her from giving a powerful performance as Marya Aleksandrovna. Joseph Wolverton had force and stamina equal to the demanding tenor part of Paul, and Josepha Gayer was convincingly nasty as the scheming Nastasya.

Aside from the staging, the outstanding feature of the production was the clear and articulate conducting.

Yinon is a conductor from whom American music lovers can expect to hear more.

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