Opera Review: Krakatit

Karel Čapek's novel predicting the nuclear arms race is also an opera

Writer Karel Čapek was a true visionary, predicting not only robots but also a nuclear bomb, as well as the rise of consumerism and the threat of fascism. Some of his tales have been adapted as operas. Krakatit, which looks at the development of a nuclear-type weapon and efforts to contain it, is not as well-known as The Makropulos Affair, which deals with the more mundane topic of immortality.

Film director Alice Nellis staged the new production of the 1960 opera Krakatit, with music by Václav Kašlík and a libretto by Otakar Vávra. It premiered April 20 at the National Theater.

“The libretto of Krakatit itself has several levels: one part of it takes place in memories, another part as the imagination. So we were looking for different layers of reality in repeating shapes and the possibilities of interconnection between reality, lights and projection,” she said. “The question of the responsibility for our own life and for what we leave to future generations is evergreen,” she added.

Overall, the story is cautionary tale about a weapons race and new type of chemical reaction that can cause massive explosions. The inventor seeks to keep it from being produced, but faces pressure from business and politics to hand over the idea.

The opera's music is quite modern, and Nellis matches that with video projections and sci-fi sets. The projections include extreme closeups of characters as well as moving backgrounds suggesting industrial areas, parts of Prague and a barren forest. After a bit of a slow start, the sets become more elaborate in the second half, when the plot also heats up a bit.

The sets, by Matěj Cibulka, have a bit of a steam punk look, a 1920s vision of the future. The costumes also mostly suggest the 1920s more than modern times and bring a coherent vision to the story and music.

Václav Kašlík music, conducted by Petr Kofroň, is rather unusual, and perhaps an acquired taste. But it suits the very modern theme. The opera is presented to mark the 100th anniversary of Kašlík's He was a versatile musician, working in TV and film as well. He was staged operas from 1945 to his death in 1989 at what is now the State Opera and later the National Theater. Many of his productions were considered visionary, and he is more remembered as a director than a composer.

The lead role of the inventor was sung by Josef Moravec. He points out the role is musically demanding. He managed to keep up with the often dissonant score and also create a character who is torn with moral conflicts over what he has created.

The book by Karel Čapek was adapted into a film in 1948 by Otakar Vávra, who also wrote the opera libretto. This makes it an early entry in the trend of films later going to the stage, rather than play and musicals being filmed.

As an opera, Krakatit is a strange project and not the normal melodramatic romance that usually is set to music. But Čapek is one of the great writers of the 20th century, and Kašlík also deserves to be remembered. The combination of their talents produced something unusual but at the same time masterful.

For more information visit www.narodni-divadlo.cz

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