“At times of anxiety, great solace can be found in timeless tales from the past”, says the British conductor Mark Wigglesworth. “Stories of eternal truths offer comfort for the present, and inspiration for the future. The story of Oedipus Rex may be 2,500 years old but its subjects of guilt and responsibility remain fundamental to the human condition”, he adds concerning Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, which will close the 76th annual festival together with Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7. “It will be very special to perform at the Prague Spring Festival in a year in which so much healing has to begin. We need to regain our confidence, a confidence that can be led by the arts. The Prague Spring Festival has always had faith in the future. We need to share that faith now more than ever”, maestro Wigglesworth adds.
At the festival’s concluding concert, there will be an encounter between two of the great musical figures of the 20th century who left an indelible mark on music history. Both have anniversaries in 2021: Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was born 130 years ago, and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) departed for eternity 50 years ago. The two composers knew each other from their youth, shared mutual respect, and exchanged friendly jibes, but they commented on each other’s music very seldom. “The fact that we were not really in accord musically did seem to matter (…) I believe he liked me as much as he did any musical friend”, Stravinsky reminisced. “We rarely discussed music when we were together. I used to think that Prokofiev’s depths were engaged only when he played chess; he was a master player, and he played with all of the celebrities.” To Diaghilev, Prokofiev was the opposite of an intellectual, and to Stravinsky he was a personality: “He had some technique and could do certain things very well, but more than that, he had personality; one saw that in his every gesture. […He was not] cheap – facility is not the same thing as cheapness.“ He disliked Prokofiev’s “primitively anti-clerical” attitude, while in turn Prokofiev objected to Stravinsky’s return to the Orthodox Church and to the “Crusaders’ Latin” in the Symphony of Psalms, “with which he rendered his wonderful music worthless.”
During the years after the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev lived abroad for a long time, mostly in the USA and France, like Stravinsky. He greatly admired The Rite of Spring, and under its influence he wrote a ballet, the music of which is the basis of the Scythian Suite. Diaghilev rejected it however, and commissioned and performed the ballet Chout, which was a major success in Paris. Stravinsky called it “the single piece modern music I could listen to with pleasure.”
Prokofiev’s return to his homeland left a deep mark on his personal and artistic fate. He had long been preparing for the move, which he did make definitive until 1936, coincidentally at the time of Stalin’s first purges, which later seriously affected the composer’s life, especially during the period of Zhdanov’s criticisms, because he neither defended himself nor apologised. “He was politically naïve, however, and had learned nothing from the example of his good friend Myaskovsky,” Igor Stravinsky recalled with regret in an interview with Robert Craft: “He returned to Russia, and when he finally understood his situation there, it was too late. A few weeks before his death, a friend of mine in Paris received a letter from him inquiring about me, and this touched me very much…”
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 is his last symphony and in fact his last completed major work. He was at work on it until the final days of his life, when he also had a new piano concerto, an opera, and a work for cello and piano on his desk. The symphony was composed in 1952 on commission for the Moscow radio broadcasting company’s children’s department, so it has sometimes been described rather facetiously as a “children’s symphony”. Its characteristic features are great depth of emotional expression, economy of musical material, and perfection of form. The Seventh Symphony is not programmatic, but it rather resembles a melancholy farewell to the world. Mstislav Rostropovich, who became Prokofiev’s close friend at the end of Prokofiev’s life, long had to conceal the mystery of the work’s ending. After a private play-through before the performance, Prokofiev’s new symphony won admiration, but it puzzled critics from the Communist Party, to whom is seemed to be “too simple”. After the first public performance, which was a great success, they objected that the work was unfinished, because it lacked an optimistic final climax. The symphony was nominated for the Stalin Prize, which would mean financial salvation for the composer, who was impoverished because of the ban on performances of his music and because he was not permitted to write music for films. The only condition was that he “finish” the symphony; otherwise, it would receive no more performances or broadcasts. The symphony’s melancholy ending was simply unacceptable, like the dramatic ending of the Sixth, which had been condemned as “formalistic”. At the urging of his friends, the gravely ill composer added, very much against his will, a ten-bar ending, a virtuosically conceived 10-bar miniature reprise that was so marvellously done that everyone was pleased; only Rostropovich knew better, and he remembered well Prokofiev’s wishes: “Slava, you’ll go on living for a long time. Remember, you must see to it that this ending disappears. Promise me that.” Rostropovich kept his promise, and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony continues to be played with its original ending.
In 1925 Jean Cocteau created a contemporary adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone (set to music by Arthur Honegger) that Igor Stravinsky admired. When he asked his friend for a text for a major choral work he had long been planning to write, the poet suggested to him the tragedy Oedipus Rex. He had no idea that this very drama by Sophocles had already interested Stravinsky in his youth, when he read it in a Russian translation among his father’s books. In Stravinsky’s conception, Sophocles’s drama, the prototype of the cathartic drama, becomes a static, almost petrified form, a backdrop through which pure music “inspired by Sophocles’s tragedy” speaks beyond the words, action, or even the story itself. In Oedipus, the separation of the musical and stage components is a basic principle, with the viewer-listener at the centre. The audience is faced with characters, immobile like statues, with masks on their faces, and through this is communicated the image of an individual, the victim of unforeseeable circumstances: “Crossroads are not personal, but geometrical,” says Stravinsky in an interview with Robert Craft, “and the geometry of tragedy, the inevitable intersecting of lines, is what interested me.” He composed Oedipus Rex as a birthday present for the 20th anniversary of the artistic activity of the Ballets Russes in Paris. The composer conducted the premiere of the concert version at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris on 30 May 1927, when the opera-oratorio was inserted between two acts of the ballet The Firebird. Otto Klemperer conducted the premiere of the staged version at the Kroll Opera in Berlin on 25 February 1928 with several important figures in attendance, including Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Albert Einstein.
“The Greeks invented theatre so that we could engage in our challenges together, knowing that ultimately the solutions to our problems need to be collective ones”, says the evening’s conductor Mark Wigglesworth. “The music that Stravinsky wrote for Oedipus Rex also addresses the collective in us. Its absence of sentiment speaks to the universal, and by looking backwards as well as forwards, the piece honours the enduring quality of Greek tragedy perfectly. Through a purity of gesture and tone the work sounds simultaneously both old and new. It is clear there is little difference between then and now. We are as connected to our past as we are to each other”, he concludes. The British native is known for his work in the fields of both orchestral music and opera. He has long been working in collaboration with the English National Opera (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Così fan tutte, Falstaff, Káťa Kabanová, Parsifal, La forza del destino), and he has also appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bavarian State Opera, Dresden’s Semperoper, the Australian Opera, and the Royal Opera at Convent Garden, where he has performed Janáček’s opera The House of the Dead with artists including Štefan Margita and Ladislav Elgr. In 2017 he won the coveted Oliver Award (Outstanding Achievement in Opera). As an orchestral conductor, he has appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Sydney Symphony. His discography includes successful recordings with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Melbourne Symphony and an album of the Brahms piano concertos with the pianist Stephen Hough. Mark Wigglesworth is highly regarded by music critics. “The music direction of Mark Wigglesworth, grabbed us by the throat and never let go,” wrote the reviewer for the British newspaper The Independent. Wigglesworth is also the author of the book The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters (2018).
Martin Myšička is a graduate of the drama department of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and of the Institute of Mathematics and Physics in the field of subatomic physics. While still a student, he performed at the National Theatre and Studio Ypsilon, among other places. In 1994 he won the Alfréd Radok Prize as talent of the year in the role of Prince Myshkin in a dramatisation of The Idiot (directed by Ondřej Zajíc).
Since 2017 he has been the artistic director of the Dejvice Theatre, one of Prague’s most prestigious theatrical stages. He got his first role there in 1997 as the Chief Consultant in a production of Poe’s The System of Soothing (directed by Miroslav Krobot). Since then, he has been under full-time contract at the Dejvice Theatre. He made his directing debut in a 2009 production of the play Landscape with Weapon by Joe Penhall. He has played many roles in films and television series such as Alois Nebel, The Karamazov Brothers, The Protector, Identity Card, In the Shadow, The Charlatan, The Fourth Star, and The Sleepers.
A native of Košice, Slovakia, Štefan Margita is a leading Czech opera singer. He became famous in the role of Laca in Janáček’s opera Jenůfa, which he has sung in a total of sixteen productions at many important opera houses in Europe and Japan. Among his other important roles have been Kudrjáš (Káťa Kabanová), Shuisky (Boris Godunov), and the Drum Major (Berg’s Wozzeck), which he has sung in Paris and Rome and again in 2013 in Berlin under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.
He is also in demand as a Wagnerian singer. “Margita’s presence was an absolute joy every second he was onstage – his singing clarion and supple, his stage demeanour nimble and ironic”, wrote the San Francisco Chronicle about his performance of Rheingold with the San Francisco Opera. “There was a spark about him that seemed to light up every corner of the stage.” This year in Valencia, Margita made his debut in Strauss’s Electra in the role of Aegisth, which he will also be singing this December at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily. In early 2021 he will return to the role of Tikhon in Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová at Prague’s National Theatre and the role of Shuisky in Boris Godunov in Washington. He is also to appear in that role in 2022 at the State Opera in Stuttgart. Margita has appeared at Milan’s La Scala, London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the festivals in Salzburg, Glyndebourne, and Edinburgh.
The British mezzo-soprano Christine Rice is a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music. She has sung the roles of Carmen, Giulietta (Tales of Hoffman), Emilia (Otello), Sonyetka (Lady Macbeth Mtsensk District), Lucretia (The Rape of Lucretia), Maddalena (Rigoletto), and many others.
She appears regularly at London’s Royal Opera, where she made her debut in 1998 as Suzy in a concert performance of Puccini’s La Rondine, and she has also sung at the Bavarian State Opera, the Teatro Real Madrid, and opera houses in Frankfurt, Zurich, Geneva, and Berlin and at the festival in Glyndebourne. She specialises in the operas of George Friderick Handel (the roles of Zenobia, Ruggiero, Nero, and the title roles of Ariodante and Rinaldo). As a concert artist, she has sung in Verdi’s Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and in the Saint Matthew Passion with the conductor John Nelson. In 2011 at New York’s Carnegie Hall with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra she premiered Closer to My Own Life by John Harbison.
In the 2020/2021 season, awaiting the Australian-American bass Joshua Bloom is a return to the Royal Opera in Covent Garden (Publio in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito), a debut at the Potsdamer Winteroper (Collantius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia), and Handel’s Messiah with the Philharmonia Baroque.
Last season, he debuted as Rocco (Fidelio), Hunding (Die Walküre), Swallow (Peter Grimes), and the Ghost/Gravedigger in a new production of Hamlet by the Australian composer Brett Dean. As a concert artist, he recently enjoyed success in the world premiere of The Garden by Richard Ayers, which he is performing all around the world with the London Sinfonietta. He has made guest appearances with the San Francisco Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the National Opera in Washington, and the Irish National Opera. He has sung on the concert stage with the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and orchestras in London, Melbourne, Queensland, Adelaide, and elsewhere.
A graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Ladislav Elgr is especially well known in the opera world for singing Janáček roles under Sir Charles Mackerras and Stefan Soltesz. In 2005-2006 he was a member of the opera studio of the Nuremberg State Opera, then from 2006 to 2008 the opera studio of the Hamburg State Opera.
For two seasons he was an ensemble member with Vienna’s Volksoper, where his roles included Tamino (The Magic Flute), Lorenzo (Fra Diavolo), Alfred (Die Fledermaus), Nando (Tiefland), and Lysander (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He has also appeared at such prestigious festivals as Glyndebourne and at Venice’s La Fenice, the Paris Opera, Dresden’s Sempreoper, the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, the Berlin State Opera, and elsewhere. His repertoire includes the roles of Števa (Jenůfa), Boris (Káťa Kabanová), Albert Gregor (The Makropulos Case), Don José (Carmen), and the Prince (Rusalka). In concert performances, he has sung in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass under the baton of Pierre Boulez (Vienna Philharmonic) and Gustavo Dudamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic), Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Madrid, and Dvořák’s Stabat Mater and Verdi’s Requiem at the Herkulessaal in Munich.