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Critic’s Notebook: Foerster’s Nightingale of Gorenjska

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Habsburger Melange an der Grazer Oper: „Die Nachtigall von Gorenjska“

Charming, lovely, adorably old-fashioned, well-played, soundly directed, and slightly forgettable: Slovenia's 'national opera'received its belated Austrian premiere.

The music sounds like the theaters and opera houses of the firm Fellner & Helmer, which are dotted all around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, look: You don’t necessarily know which one you are standing in front of, but you are reminded of a whole lot and feel, for all the minor differences, at home. A Habsburg mélange. That’s Anton Foerster’s opera The Nightingale of Gorenjska, which was given its Austrian premiere last week at the opera house (a Fellner & Helmer building, naturally) in Graz. This Upper Carniolan thrush, initially composed as an operetta in 1872 and then turned into an opera at the end of the century, is sold as Slovenia’s national opera.
It's a pleasant enough work, by all means, and good, easy light fun, from the bubbly overture onward. We’re dealing, subject-wise, with Minka (Sieglinde Feldhofer), who has the loveliest voice in the entire North-Eastern Slovenian valley. A French impresario (Markus Butter) happens to overhear her (just the voice, at first, to stretch out the plot) and wants to sign her up. Butter had this Jean Mathieu Chansonette character down pat, from head to toe and back to the horn-rimmed glasses, with the ease of a seasoned actor. Minka had been enticed to let her voice flow because her fiancé Franjo (Roman Pichler) had just returned from his little sojourn abroad. But now she’s got the prospect of a career and good money dangled before her (much needed to subsidize mother’s loss-making farm) and briefly develops a proto-feminist attitude (“If I want it, I get to do it!”). She wants her fame, or at least try. This, naturally, makes the whole village cringe, and Franjo and the boys set out to prevent it. After all, if you truly love someone, you make sure to hold them back in the dank little valley lest they get airs. They arrange for a kangaroo trial of the Frenchman to scare him and his foreign ways away. Chansonette duly leaves, but not without letting Minka keep the downpayment (not that this adequately addresses the presumably structurally unsound economic underpinnings of her homestead), gets a gift basket from the happy villages, after all, and voilà, a happy end à la 1872. No woman is happier than when she gets the fulfillment of being a wife and a mother. Aside, he’s already seen the world for her. In the production’s defense, they squeak in an ambiguous note, here and there, and the whole farce shouldn’t be taken too seriously to begin with. It’s just easy to poke fun at it.

It's tough business for a soprano to play one on stage – where she is constantly hailed for her glorious voice and that high A, in particular. Especially when that high A isn’t all that secure and much of the delivery is on the verge of being strained, despite commendable efforts on Feldhofer’s part. In that sense, Roman Pichler had it rather easier, playing a provincial wannabe tenor who wants that career himself but hasn’t what it takes to interest Mr. Chansonette. This, Pichler did well, without hesitation and gusto.

The music, niftily performed by Marko Hribernik and the Graz Philharmonic, has a little harmless kick and remains in the general sphere of (lots of) Bedřich Smetana (who was Foerster’s teacher), Franz von Suppé, and Oskar Strauss. It’s chock-full of Slovenian folk songs, some of which reputedly stem from the opera itself, and many which sound like Foerster poured out a bucket of folk hits over the fourth-act finale. Just before this folksy carousing, there’s a chorus of an Ave Maria – Foerster appeared to be feeling his inner Puccini here – that sounds as if plopped into the set from a helicopter above. If that wasn’t one of the pieces meant to make it more serious so that it may graduate to “opera”, I’ll eat my shorts. Janusz Kica’s production struck a fine balance between folk-nostalgia and modernity, traditional costumes and a clean, abstract stage, avoiding kitsch to an extent this opera might never have before. Little will remain in the memory down the road, but nothing hurt on this very reasonably diverting evening. A recording of the performance(s) will be released in the near future on the CPO - Classic Produktion Osnabrück label. P.S. To prepare for this performance, I went to my shelves and pulled off all my music by Foerster. I was twice through the piano trios, some of the piano music, and the five outrageously good string quartets, before I realized: Josef Bohuslav Foerster ≠ Anton Foerster. Uh well, close enough, if not musically. (Anton is J.B.'s uncle.)

Photo © Oper Graz, Werner Kmetitsch. Sieglinde Feldhofer (Minka)

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