Christ’s Cross at Prague’s Crossroads
Audiences coming to hear Collegium 1704′s presentation of the St Helen Oratorio last month began with a kind of pilgrimage themselves.
The decommissioned St. Anne´s church at Prague’s Crossroads, with artefacts from Václav Havel´s possession, is hidden from its seekers in a winding labyrinth of narrow streets near the Old Town Square. This night (Nov 19), the way is also bordered by flickering candles marking access to the concert and its ancient tale.
According to legend, St Helen was on a pilgrimage and found Christ’s tomb and the cross upon which he died.
The oratorio about it, Santa Elena al Calvario, was created in 1747 and revised in 1772 by Dresden Court kapellmeister Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783). Known as “il Sasone – The Saxon,” he was in his day a greatly admired composer throughout Europe.
Despite his popularity, the original version of his oratorio has not been heard for an unbelievable 250 years – not until this night, that is.
Collegium 1704 Conductor Václav Luks explains in a recent Czech radio interview why he chose the first version: “The second version has a new overture and it is basically a different piece of art. I chose the first one, as it reminds me of the notable Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka [1679-1745], who was at that time also in service at the Dresden Court.”
Clear, Impressive, Noble
Solely by listening to the oratorio, you can easily read the simple structure and still be surprised by the carefully built-up drama. It’s highlighted by the great performance of both the vocals of Collegium 1704 Vocale and the music of Collegium 1704, and also due to the gentle but determined gestures of their almost-levitating conductor, Václav Luks.
Some solos impress the audience with only a simple a capella performance, completed by a ravishing finale. The story culminates with a delicate duet of Saint Helena (Spanish mezzosoprano Anna Alàs i Jove) and the pilgrim Eduosa (soprano Olga Jelínková) above Christ’s newly-discovered cross.
Another high moment is an aria by Draciliano (German alto Julia Böhme), the newly baptized Christian of Palestinian origin, accompanied by two cellos. She and the conductor almost start to dance during this act.
Among all the solos two arias stand out by Olga Jelínková: Once by the breathtaking performance of the heights in the first part, and then by a dim proclamation almost at the end:
See this evil serpent lifting up his head in anger
wildly wriggling on the ground, looking pointlessly for a victim,
See the poisonous teeth, that bite the hard stone,
in its despair it knows that it won´t end its vengeance.
“Let the music be clear, simple but noble,” wrote Johann Adolph Hasse centuries ago. Prague’s noteworthy Baroque orchestra Collegium 1704 and vocal ensemble Collegium Vocale 1704, founded and conducted by Václav Luks, fulfilled Hasse’s request even for a 21st century audience.
Till the end of the year your chances to see the Collegium 1704 ensemble come on Dec 15 at The Rudolfinum (Handel’s Te Deum,) and again at St Anne at Prague Crossroads (Kostel Sv Anny-Pražská Křížovatka) the very last day of 2015 (J.S. Bach cantatas).
– Hana Blažková, Opus Osm writer
Photo Credits: Top: Miroslav Setnička; Hasse, Wikipedia; all others, Petra Hajská