Jesus Christ Superstar
Tomáš Holub 26. June 2008 zdroj Abyss – metal magazine
After the successful concert version of the musical “West Side Story’, director Petr Gazdík decided to convert another world-famous title which has been in the repertoire of Brno City Theatre for a long time – “Jesus Christ Superstar” - into a concert version. The English concert version of the most famous rock opera of all time had its premiere on 19. 6. 2008, in a great orchestral arrangement under the direction of Igor Vavrda, as part of the “Open Door Festival of Musical Theatre – Brno 2008”.
My visit to the Music Stage of Brno City Theatre, which was a ‘premiere’ as well, couldn’t be devoted to anything other than this concert version of the rock opera. It has to be said, however, that I was mainly looking forward to the performance of my favourite actor, Igor Ondříček, whom I have seen in several excellent comedies (for example “A Flea in Her Ear”) and who surprised me a great deal with his singing in the musical “Cabaret”.
I had resisted visiting the Music Stage of Brno City Theatre for quite a long time, despite the great responses to its performances, under the direction of such names as Stanislav Moša, Zdenek Merta, Petr Ulrych, Milan Uhde and others. But who could resist ‘Jesus’, right?
A great atmosphere was promised by (aside from the pleasant company I was in, of course) the newly built building of the Music Stage (with the option of varied seating arrangements in the auditorium) and the tastefully adapted courtyard of what is a truly modern theatre, within which you can visit the Boulevard restaurant, a garden bar under grape-vines, the Nekonečno theatre club, bars, or just stand around and chat next to flowing water. Just for interest’s sake – in 2004, the new building of the Music Stage of Brno City Theatre was awarded the 1st prize in the competition for the best construction in the South Moravian region, as well as Construction of the Year 2004.
But let’s go back to the performance. The orchestra, which also contained a typical rock band line-up, was not hidden from the eyes of the spectators this time but rather placed straight on the stage. Before the concert itself, the spectators were welcomed by the director of Brno City Theatre, Stanislav Moša, who revealed in his short speech, among other things, that the uniqueness of the concert version of ‘Jesus’ lies in the number of playing musicians. In a “standard” musical, there are usually fourteen of them, but we got to see many more musicians – I counted about 35. String and wind instruments were represented in almost identical amounts, and as I have already written, there were rock instruments as well.
The slow intro, in which a quiet instrumental performance led gradually into a freeform blending of individual instruments together to eventually create a final thrilling passage, could have been a top-quality introduction to any black metal album. The ever-denser sound and truly dark atmosphere was just right for this presentation of the biblical story of the last days of Jesus Christ, including his crucifixion. Even though it was a concert version, the actors didn’t simply ‘change into singers’, but throughout their performance, gestures and the playing of musical passages, they in fact delivered a shortened version of the story which was thus easy to understand. This was aided also by subtitles with a translation of the texts into Czech; they were easy to read and were shown in the upper part of the stage. I was also surprised by the excellent sound and the sound distribution of the individual instruments. The strings not only complemented the guitar parts tastefully but also excellently expressed the emotionality of the story, while the wind section added seriousness to the individual scenes; their task was also to take care of gradation. The music was a pleasure for all fans of works from the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies of the last century when strings and other non-rock instruments started appearing in rock bands for the first time - it was impossible not to be reminded of the great bands YES and E.L.O. Also, echoes of lyrical works of the sixties could be heard in the more acoustic compositions where the main element was the electro-acoustic guitar (Mary Magdalene’s solo performance and later that also of Jesus).
In his musical, the British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber skillfully captured the music and atmosphere of the period in which the musical was created (first came a record with recordings of the musical’s songs in 1970; the musical itself had its premiere on 17.10.1971 in New York). The actors and musicians of Brno City Theatre were successful in at least temporarily re-creating this atmosphere for us, even the playful enthusiasm which is so specific to the original film version of the musical from 1973 when the story of Jesus was conveyed through a group of young people – hippies. Another supporting (but important) component of the performance was the lights, the synchronization of which with the music and the certain aggression in the way they were used in tense scenes added another dimension to the performance (even though the sharp light may have created not only a feeling of urgency in a very few moments but also a feeling of unpleasantness in the spectators).
Songs which got stuck in my memory were particularly “Everything’s Alright”, which is full of feeling, and the classic hits “Superstar” and “Hosanna”. Ivana Vaňková was awarded the biggest applause immediately after the end of the song about Mary Magdalene’s confession of love for Jesus – and completely rightfully. I cannot help comparing her to Bára Basiková, whose voice is excellent and who sang this role in the first Czech production of the musical in the Spirála Theatre at the Prague Exhibition Centre (the musical was performed from 22. 7. 1994 till 28. 6. 1998). While Basiková sang the song flawlessly and exactly “according to the notes”, her vocal expression wasn’t, in my opinion, very expressive and rich in feelings. In contrast with this, Ivana Vaňková gave this song, apart from her voice, also a part of her heart and I have to admit that her performance, which was more interesting, could not be evaluated as anything else but “full of feelings” and “touching”, without being clichéd in any way. I would also rate the performance of Jiří Mach in the role of Simon as excellent. Of course, other actors also met the strictest criteria – Dušan Vitázek (Jesus), whose range of expressions is almost endless, the distinctive and rebellious Petr Gazdík (Judas) as well as others (for example, Igor Ondříček performed at the very lowest point of his vocal range). I think that the choice of roles assigned to the individual actors with various vocal expressions was a very successful one and that the spectators could hear a varied range of voices which, with admirable ease, joined together in beautiful choruses.
The endless applause of the spectators (all 680 seats were occupied) at the end of the last tones of the performance was an apt reward for all the actors. The applause had to be interrupted by Stanislav Moša who, after words of thanks, began the christening of a book about musicals by translator (who among other projects also translated the musical Jesus Christ Superstar), text writer, publicist, producer and music expert Michael Prostějovský, who had the added pleasure of hearing the Czech version of the song “Hosanna” performed in honour of his sixtieth birthday.
I won’t dare to compare the first production version of the musical, which featured the singers Kamil Střihavka (Jesus), Dan Bárta (Judas), Aleš Brichta (Pontius Pilate) and other well-known rockers, with the version produced by Brno City Theatre too much, but it is a fact that there is a difference in the musical conception. The musical actors of Brno City Theatre were perhaps more daring in putting some of their own inventiveness into the singing parts, which was obvious particularly in Mary Magdalene’s songs, and the style of singing of the other actors simply differed from the “Prague” version as well. It can be said of both productions, though, that they were full of excellent singing performances and I am happy that I had the opportunity to see such a well-performed premiere of the concert version of the musical at Brno City Theatre, and on top of that, the version in the original language. With regards to the high quality of the performance of all the participants it is clear to me that this certainly wasn’t my last visit to this theatre.