It was daring enough for Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek to devote his program with the visiting Prague Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center last night to a little known Dvora'k "dramatic legend" called "The Spectre's Bride." And it was equally daring of Washington's crack Choral Arts Society to take on the lengthy choral part of the work -- in Czech, which the singers found to be the hardest language they have yet tried.
Both groups, though, had at least counted on an adequate rehearsal together. But that was dashed yesterday when the Prague Symphony's out-of-town bus drivers got the players lost in Washington rush-hour traffic on the way to a 6 p.m. run-through.
For two of three buses full of Czech musicians, the 18-block trip from their hotel at 16th and K streets to the Kennedy Center took about an hour and a half. And for the third bus -- which somehow ended up at National Airport instead of the Kennedy Center -- it took longer.
"The chorus was here at the center at 6 and we kept wondering where the orchestra was," said Choral Arts Society director Norman Scribner after the concert. "We would have just barely had time anyway to get through the whole work before clearing out for the 8:30 performance. It was exactly 6:59 when the first bus arrived. All we ended up with was about 30 minutes of rehearsal with two-thirds of an orchestra."
Last night, the Concert Hall audience would never have known. This was partly because the orchestra has been playing the work throughout its American tour, including Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night (with another chorus); partly because Belohlavek had come down on Thursday night for a 2 1/2-hour piano rehearsal with the choir -- and, further, because the 100-year-old work is so seldom performed, even in Prague, that subtle distinctions might have gone unnoticed.
All that said, "The Spectre's Bride" was a pleasure to hear -- a welcome contrast with the habit of visiting conductors to draw from the Top 100 of the classical repertory when on tour.
It is a dramatic cantata in 18 parts, not meant to be staged, with a Poe-ish story line from folk sources about a deserted young maiden spirited off in the middle of the night by a spectre of her departed lover. They go to a graveyard where the specter tries to drag her to the realm of the dead. Her prayers to the Virgin save her in the nick of time -- as the cock crows and dawn arrives. It is a characteristic 19th-century duel between the forces of light and darkness.
Dvora'k's cantata is no rival for the most famous work of this particular kind, Berlioz's stunning "The Damnation of Faust." For all his mastery as a composer of symphonies and chamber music, Dvora'k does not show in this work a comparable knack for crystallizing the essence of dramatic situations and developing the dramatic momentum of a story line. Still, much of the music is lovely in its air of lyric melancholy.
There is lot of Wagner in the score. But there is very little of Wagner's genius in the way the story itself is spun out.
All three soloists recall early Wagner. The soprano (the maiden) and the tenor (the specter) keep suggesting Lohengrin and Elsa in their rapturous duets. And the dark deliverances of the third soloist, a baritone who is a sort of narrator, bring to mind the Flying Dutchman's music. Of the singers, baritone Ivan Kusnjer fared best. Tenor Michael Sylvester was perfectly able, but Magdalena Blahusiakova's soprano was badly focused and often covered by the orchestra except at the top.
Choral singing was impeccable. The Prague orchestra, while not of the virtuoso type, played with authority, especially in the winds.
And conductor Belohlavek certainly proved his mettle, holding everything together as chorus and orchestra got to know each other for the first time.