As a result of more than 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, Prague has been considered by the West as "East." But it is, in fact, west of Vienna and has always prided itself on being a cultural outpost of Western Europe, rather than a gateway to the East. Now, 11 years after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic is valiantly trying to rebuild its political and economic infrastructure to fully rejoin the West.
Prague is old, but the city we see today is relatively new. It was formed in the second half of the 18th century by an administrative fiat from Vienna, combining four old townships situated on both sides of the River Vltava (Moldau). This was part of the attempt by the Hapsburg dynasty of monarchs to modernize the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prague underwent a full-fledged construction boom, but the fashion of the times created a new city in a reincarnation of old styles: neoclassical, neobaroque, neogothic, neo everything. Add that to the fact that Prague was spared significant destruction during the wars of the last two centuries, and you have a beautiful city that still reflects the glory of the last decades of the empire.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Prague considered itself musically more progressive than Vienna, and Mozart used it as the launching pad for some of his greatest works, including the opera Don Giovanni. It is still a city of music, music everywhere. Besides being the headquarters of the world-famous Czech Philharmonic, this city of 1.2 million boasts two large and two small opera companies as well as innumerable smaller ensembles. It is also a mecca for jazz lovers. Daily, there are at least a dozen classical music performances, double on weekends. (Incidentally, while the high-cult Viennese callously dumped Mozart's body in a cheap grave unmourned, Praguers gathered by the thousands at the news of his death and mounted a performance of his unfinished Requiem to honor him. A nightly performance of Don Giovanni with puppets keeps the composer's ties with the city alive.)
Prague's many churches, trying to raise money to erase decades of neglect, serve as venues for numerous daily concerts by both professional and amateur ensembles. While the amateur concerts are free, a donation is generally expected. The logistics of these performances is often daunting: The Ravenscroft orchestra gave one of its three performances on a Sunday afternoon in St. Nicholas' Church in Prague's Old Town Square, one of four different ensembles performing in the church that day. It made rehearsing a challenge.
The grand old palaces and former monasteries that dot the city have mostly been converted into museums and other public uses. A former Jesuit college called the Klementinum includes the Mirror Chapel, now used as a concert hall. But what acoustics! We heard there the Martinu String Quartet performing Smetana's Quartet No.2 in E minor and Beethoven's Quartet in B flat Major, Op.130. The Smetana, written as the composer's mental health deteriorated, is a disturbing and upsetting work. The Martinu Quartet tried to smooth over some of the wild and manic sections, especially in the third movement, a pity. It made their performance more timid than the work deserves.
But the performance of the Beethoven quartet was something else. If they record it, we'll be first in line to purchase it. They had the precision, intonation and overall concept of this massive work to make it a moving experience. A scouting note: The Martinu has rarely performed in this country, but our sister state to the south has already welcomed them, and they assured us they'd like to return.
We attended a performance of Dvorák's best known opera, Rusalka, at the National Theater. Of the two major opera companies, the State Opera leans more toward the Italian and German repertoire, while the Opera of the National Theater specializes in Czech and Russian works. Rusalka, a version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," is the story of a water sprite who wishes to become human and fall in love, only to discover that humans are fickle and once you step over the divide, you can't go back.
Sitting in the spectacular opera hall next to Lorenzo Muti, conductor of the Opera Company of North Carolina, we saw him drool over the orchestra pit, which was large enough to seat a symphony orchestra, the stage with ample wings and the hall built so that all seats have good sight lines. The contrast with the facilities available in the Triangle was sobering. So was the contrast in the audiences. The house was nearly full, although it was midweek, and a good quarter of the audience were schoolchildren. No graying audience there!
The staging and singing were stunning. Using only a minimal set, most staging effects were achieved by the creative use of lighting, and fabric billowing to simulate water and waves. The costumes were themselves a work of art. Conscious of the many visiting tourists and the obscurity of the Czech language, the National Theater provided easily readable English supertitles.
For all its rich culture, however, Prague is in danger when it comes to scaring up the money to support its arts habit. With the demise of communism went most of the state funding for the arts, and Praguers must find alternative resources. The upshot is that the esteemed Czech Philharmonic is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In a country where the annual income is still far below the standards of the rest of Western Europe, private and corporate money is not easy to find. Ticket prices, reflecting the economic situation, are exceptionally modest: Our opera tickets were about $11! Other costs are likewise more than reasonable. You can go to Prague for a week of opera and concerts and spend less than if you went to New York for the same purpose. And you can load up on first-quality locally produced CDs for half what they'd cost you here.