Martinu's 'The Plays of Mary' After Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek, Bohuslav Martinu continued the long and distinguished line of Czech opera composers. Characters both sacred and profane struggle for supremacy in Martinu's unique stage drama, inspired by the medieval tradition of mystery and miracle Plays.
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One Opera, Four Stories: Martinu's 'The Plays Of Mary'

One Opera, Four Stories: Martinu's 'The Plays Of Mary'

From The Prague National Opera

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Pavla Vykopalava plays Sister Paskalina, the esteemed nun who is wooed away from her convent by a demon. Hana Smejkalova hide caption

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Hana Smejkalova

Pavla Vykopalava plays Sister Paskalina, the esteemed nun who is wooed away from her convent by a demon.

Hana Smejkalova

The Single

In the opera's final drama, Sister Paskalina (soprano Pavla Vykopalava) prays to the Virgin Mary for strength to resist a demon, who promises a life of love and pleasure. But the temptation proves too strong and the demon leads her away as the convent's morning services begin.

Paskalina's Prayer

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The B Side

In the final scene, the chorus responds to Paskalina's acceptance into heaven with a triumphant "Dona nobis pacem," and the opera ends with the sound of slowly fading church bells.

'Dona Nobis Pacem'

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Over the centuries, the region historically known as Bohemia has had many names, and been part of many nations and empires: the Premysl Empire, the Hapsburg Monarchy, the Luxembourg Dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire. It has also been home to a rich and ancient culture, and some of the world's greatest and most popular composers from what we now think of as the Czech musical tradition. The names Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana and Leoš Janáček readily come to mind.

But there's another Czech musician whose name might also be part of that illustrious list, but often isn't: Bohuslav Martinů, who was one of the 20th century's most accomplished and prolific composers.

During a career that took him from Prague, to Paris, to New York, Martinů wrote six major symphonies, all of them striking. He also composed dozens of chamber works, 15 ballets, a collection of film scores and a variety of vocal and choral music. And he wrote more than two dozen operas, including The Plays of Mary, a score that's actually four separate dramas in one package, and features some of Martinů's most spectacular and inspiring music.

Martinů was born in 1890, in a small Bohemian village near the border with Moravia. He grew up in church -- literally. Until he was 12, Martinů's family lived in a church tower, where his father served as a watchman and bell ringer.

During the course of his career, Martinů became a well-travelled and cosmopolitan artist. As a teenager, he began musical studies at the Prague Conservatory. Later, in Paris, he was drawn to a wide variety of musical and artistic styles, including impressionism, avant-garde jazz and dadaism.

Martinů left Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded, early in World War II. He spent the war years in New York, where he wrote his first five symphonies and had a hit with his opera The Comedy on the Bridge.

Still, even during his formative Paris years in the 1930s, Martinů's music often gravitated back toward his Czech origins, and his religious upbringing. Both can be heard in The Plays of Mary, first performed at the Provincial Theatre in Brno, in 1935.

On World of Opera, Lisa Simeone presents Martinů's unique, four-part opera in a production from the Prague National Theatre. It features an impressive, ensemble cast -- with many singers taking multiple roles -- and the performance is led by one of today's foremost interpreters of Czech music, conductor Jiři Belohlavek.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'The Plays of Mary'

Hana Smejkalova
Plays of Mary child
Hana Smejkalova

Who's Who

Maria Kobielska …………. Mariken

Pavla Vykopalava … Sister Paskalina

Stanislava Jirku ……. Mother of God

Jana Levicova ….. The Foolish Virgin

Jiri Hajek …………. God the Son

Svatopluk Sem ……..…The Devil

Jaroslav Brezina …….. Mascaron

Ivan Kusnjer ………….. Blacksmith

Frantisek Zahradnicek … Drunkard

Jakub Gottwald ………….. Narrator

Prague National Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Jiři Belohlavek, conductor

The four dramas of Martinů's opera are modern takes on the medieval tradition of Mystery and Miracle Plays.

PART ONE is a sort of prologue, called "The Wise and Foolish Virgins," based on a French liturgical play -- with roots in the Gospel of Matthew -- about ten virgins waiting for the Heavenly Bridegroom. Five of them, the wise ones, have come prepared with oil-filled lamps. The others have lamps, but no oil. When Christ arrives, only the wise virgins can join him, and pass through the gates of heaven.

Most of the virgins are played by dancers; only one has a singing role. The Bridegroom is portrayed by a quartet of voices, while the chorus serves both to observe and comment on the action.

PART TWO is called "Mariken of Nimégue," and is based on a Flemish legend. The role of Mariken is played by both a singer and a dancer, and the drama also includes brief passages of spoken narration.

Mariken is a beautiful young woman who gets lost in the woods and prays to the Virgin Mary for help. Instead, she's greeted by the Devil, who tempts her into a life of wealth and sensual pleasures. She travels with him from village to village, corrupting the local people along the way.

Eventually, they return to her home village, where a religious play is being staged. It's a story about the son of God; Mary, the mother of God; and Mascaron, the Devil's representative. Against the Devil's urgings, Mariken attends the play, which is ultimately about God's mercy and forgiveness. Seeing that the play's message has moved Mariken, the Devil seizes her, sends her high into the air, then slams her to the ground. But when Mary intervenes, Mariken repents and is granted forgiveness.

PART THREE, "The Nativity," is a pastoral drama based on Moravian folk poetry, depicting the birth of Christ. It's presented as a sort of staged oratorio, with the chorus playing a key role.

The Virgin Mary is seeking a place to sleep for the night, and is rejected by both the innkeeper and the local blacksmith. Eventually, she winds up in a stable, where she gives birth and lays her child in the manger.

The blacksmith's daughter then appears. Mary asks her to pick up the child and hand him to her. But the girl can't, as she has no hands. Then, as she leans over the manger, she's miraculously cured. She runs to her father, who is now ashamed at having turned Mary away, as angels announce the birth of the lord, and the entire world welcomes him.

PART FOUR is called "Sister Paskalina." It begins as Paskalina, a respected nun, is called to morning services at her convent. But she's deep in a dream -- a vision of a demon, who tries to win her away from the Holy Virgin by promising her the love of a gallant knight.

Paskalina wakes up, and heads for mass. But on the way she sees the knight and can't resist him. She goes to the statue of the Mother of God, leaves her veil and her keys to the convent at the statue's feet, and leaves with her new lover.

Hana Smejkalova
Plays of Mary child2
Hana Smejkalova

The two are married, and seem to be living happily. But the Devil steps in. He kills the knight, but makes it seem that Paskalina has murdered him. She's convicted, and condemned to burn at the stake.

As the fire surrounds her, the Mother of God steps in and stops the flames. When Paskalina returns to the convent, she's astonished to find that the other nuns never knew she was gone. The Mother of God had taken her place, and no one ever missed her. Paskalina is forgiven, and dies as the morning mass begins.