Review: Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, Hong Kong Arts Festival – profound rendering of the anguish of Christ’s mother
Understated approach to Dvorak’s grief-stricken work brought out its profundity, in a triumphant, cathartic performance by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Janacek Opera of the National Theatre Brno
Expressions of grief can take many forms. For a parent who loses a child, this is heartbreaking, but to lose multiple children, this is unfathomable. Such was the fate of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who suffered the inconsolable loss of three of his children. Although no conclusive evidence exists, it seems plausible that his decision to pen the oratorio was his means to express this grief.
He used the anonymous 13th-century text Stabat Mater for his setting, dispensing with his familiar Bohemian folk elements in favour of a dark outpouring of extraordinary magnitude. Many composers before – including Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini and Verdi – and many after – Penderecki, Poulenc and Pärt – had used the text, but none approaches the length nor the emotional scope that we see here.
Dvorak uses the text in a repetitive manner such that the music takes precedence, with emotional pain and tenderness at its core.
The libretto represents the Virgin Mary’s vigil at the crucifixion of Jesus, confirming Dvorak’s deep religious conviction.
One of the earliest performances of the work was in April 1882, conducted by the Czech composer Leos Janacek in Brno. How fitting it is then to have the Orchestra and Chorus of the Janacek Opera of the National Theatre Brno here to perform it.
Dvorak utilises a standard romantic-sized orchestra, chorus and soloists, but the setting is more meditative than operatic. He divides the text into 10 sections, essentially alternating between the grander choruses and the more intimate solos. Success of the work depends on the quality of the choruses, the projection, sensitivity and poignancy of the soloists, and the ensemble’s ability to lend depth to its solemnity.
It was wonderful to see the Orchestra and Chorus enter the stage together, signifying a unity that was maintained during the performance.
In the opening section, Stabat Mater dolorosa (At the cross her station keeping), the balance was beautifully conceived: from the darkest chromatic depths to the brightest hues shining in the two ephemeral climaxes.
The conductor, Jaroslav Kyzlink, opted for an understated approach that brought out the profundity of the text. His attention to detail presented the orchestra in a chamber-like fashion with clearly audible counterpoint, particularly in the woodwinds.
In the opening section, the tenor, Aleš Briscein, had lovely phrasing and effortless projection. Some of the diction presented challenges and it was a pity that the balance was not always fashioned in a manner that allowed him to soar. At times, the composer has the tenor function almost as a narrator and it was here that Briscein had more success.
The second section again sees all four soloists contributing to the mix that includes a four-note motif that is heard repeatedly, resulting in an almost hypnotic feel. The chromaticism evident earlier has transformed itself into ascending form, offering a degree of hope amid the overriding despair.
Later highlights included Eia Mater, fons amoris (O thou Mother! Fount of love!), which saw the chorus present musical phrases with exquisite shadings and subtlety of colour, and the inclusion of the organ in Fac, ut ardeat cor meum (Make me feel as thou hast felt), which gave an ethereal quality to the emotionally charged music.
The most emotive of soloists was the mezzo soprano Jana Hrochová, who delivered her rendition of Flammis ne urar succénsus (Be to me, O Virgin, nigh) with great insight and depth.
The final section culminated in a return to the earliest musical material, heightened with grand sensibilities. The result is cathartic, with the initial outpouring of grief transforming itself into acceptance and the greater good.
Dvorak Stabat Mater, National Theatre Brno, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: Feb 26