9.12.2019, Boris Klepal
The Academy of Classical Music, organizer of the international music festival Dvořák Prague, has bestowed the Antonín Dvořák Prize this year to the soprano Gabriela Beňačková for her lifelong service to the legacy of Antonín Dvořák. She thus becomes the next recipient of the prize previously awarded to Jiří Bělohlávek, Yo Ma, Ivan Moravec, Josef Suk, and many others. She will be given the traditional glass violoncello from Moser at a concert 21 December 2020 in Prague’s Rudolfinum.
The excellent Slovak soprano Gabriela Beňačková has called the Czech Republic her home now for many years, but thanks to her art can find a home anywhere in the world. Her greatest singing success came from 1970s to the 1990s, however she returned after a long artistic break to the scene in 2012. With her return to opera houses and concert stages came the return one of the most beautiful soprano voices of the last half century.
When the young Slovak soprano entered the Czech National Theater in 1970, she created an impression that could hardly be forgotten by anyone present at the time. She was twenty-three and had not only a beautiful voice but also knew how to use it well. Her high notes twinkled like silver, and she sang Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace – according to her contemporaries, she also managed to convey a share of self-confidence at a distance. The role of Natasha was a predictor not only of Beňačková's capacity to sing apparently effortlessly even the most difficult roles, but also of her connection with the Slovak repertoire. Her voice and singing of course had universal appeal and she soon attracted the attention of the international scene as well.
A SLOVAK VOICE FOR A GLOBAL REPERTOIRE
A bright, lyrical soprano voice with a tinge of Slavonic sadness that rises to the heights with incredible lightness – that is how one might typically describe the voice and singing of Gabriela Beňačková, whose vocal career is one of the most brilliant to have emerged from Slovakia when it was still part of a country shared with the Czech people. Around the world, Ms. Beňačková is the definitive performer of the role of Mařenka in The Bartered Bride, of major female roles in the operas of Leoš Janáček, and of the title role in Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Her recording of The Bartered Bride under the baton of Zdeněk Košler is regarded as the key to the modern interpretation of Bedřich Smetana’s most popular opera. Besides Beňačková and the Slovak tenor Peter Dvorský singing the role of Jeník, the recording also features the bass Richard Novák and the Czech Philharmonic, two subsequent winners of the Antonín Dvořák Prize in 2016 and 2018.
Gabriela Beňačková was born on 25 March 1947 in Bratislava, and she devoted herself to music from her childhood. She became a member of the opera ensemble at the National Theatre in Prague in 1970. She soon worked her way upwards and became a leading member of the ensemble, but in parallel to her successes at home, she was also on the fact track to a big career abroad. Ms. Beňačková became an ensemble member at the Bavarian State Opera and the Vienna State Opera, where one of her major roles was Maddalena in the opera Andrea Chénier. Plácido Domingo sang the title role, and Ms. Beňačková made an outstanding vocal pairing with him. Together, they also created the roles of Otello and Desdemona in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, which they performed many times at the Metropolitan Opera, where Ms. Beňačková also gave remarkable performances of Káťa Kabanová. She later recorded this Janáček opera under the baton of Charles Mackerras.
At the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Opera, and other important theatres, Ms. Beňačková has made her mark as a moving performer of the title part in Dvořák’s Rusalka. She has been recorded twice in the role, once with the Czech Philharmonic and once in Vienna. Václav Neumann conducted on both recordings, and on the first of them, Beňačková again joined forces with Richard Novák in the role of the Water Goblin. Ms. Beňačková also appeared in Neumann’s complete set of recordings of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. She has sung the soprano parts in Dvořák’s Requiem and Stabat Mater and has made recordings under the baton of Wolfgang Sawalisch.
Ms. Beňačková has been appreciated not only in the Czech and Slovak repertoire; she has been simply outstanding singing lyric roles. She has sung Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème and Margeurite in Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mefistofele. Her partners were the world’s top singers of the 1970s through the ’90s. In about 1997 she began to withdraw from her life as a performer, and it seemed that her career as a singer had definitively ended, but in 2012 she appeared at the Salzburg Festival as the Countess de la Roche in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten. In 2018 she surprisingly played the role of Kabanicha in Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová – the public at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples saw Ms. Beňačková as Káťa’s tyrannical mother-in-law. The album of songs by Dvořák, Janáček, and Martinů, which she recorded in 1994 with the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, was nominated for a Grammy. At present, she is the president of the Gabriela Beňačková International Vocal Competition. She has earned the title of Kammersängerin with the Bavarian State Opera and Vienna State Opera, and she has been awarded the Medal of Merit and the Order of the White Double Cross. She has won the Antonín Dvořák Prize as an outstanding artist who is still active.
“It is my great pleasure, thank you,” Beňačková responded to being awarded the Antonín Dvořák Prize, “I think that Antonín Dvořák would be satisfied with how I presented his work throughout the world.” The singer added that she deeply appreciates all the artists who received the prize before her. She feels herself to be in excellent company among their number, and is deeply grateful for the award.
The Antonín Dvořák Prize is a prestigious award in the field of classical music. It is intended to highlight people, artistic collectives, or institutions for exceptional artistic achievements or significant merit in promoting and popularising Czech classical music in the Czech Republic and abroad. Winners have been announced by the Academy of Classical Music since 2009. The first laureate of the prize was the great-grandson of the composer Antonín Dvořák, the violinist, violist, and conductor Josef Suk. Following him were such figures as the pianist Ivan Moravec, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the world-famous choreographer and dancer Jiří Kylián. In the past, the importance of the prize has been underscored by the special places and occasions of its presentation. The soprano Ludmila Dvořáková received the Antonín Dvořák Prize in the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle during a recital by the pianist Lang Lang, the conductor Jiří Bělohlávek was given the prize in 2014 at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Czech Philharmonic received it at its concert celebrating 100 years of Czech statehood at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The gala concert on 21 December 2020 will feature a recital by tenor Piotr Beczała – popular arias will be heard from Rusalka or Tosca. The welcome party onstage will include the laureate of the Antonín Dvořák Prize from 2017, the pianist Ivan Klánský, as well as other members of the Council of Academicians who decide on the prize – the pianists Ivo Kahánek, David Mareček, and Jan Simon. These will play together Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 7 for three pianos and orchestra in F major. The artists will be accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of the Capital City of Prague FOK, under the baton of conductor Marco Boemi.
BEDŘICH SMETANA: THE BARTERED BRIDE, 1981
Today, it is clear that in 1981 Supraphon made the reference recording of the modern conception of the opera The Bartered Bride. Gabriela Beňačková and Peter Dvorský are at the height of their youthful powers, but their vocal characteristics are already firmly established. Both are superb stylistically, although there are still those who sometimes criticise Peter Dvorský’s Slovak accent. Together, they remind us that an ideal performance of the iconic Czech opera also requires world-class voices.
JIŘÍ PAUER: ZUZANA VOJÍŘOVÁ, 1981
This psychological tale is about the Czech nobleman Petr Vok’s fictional lover. According to the magazine Gramophone: “Beňačková masterfully portrays the transformation of the character: in the opening scenes, she presents us with an impulsive and enchanting girl who lightheartedly throws herself into the embrace of Petr Vok, who is fascinated with her, and then she creates a noble portrait of a broken woman who does not lose her dignity even at the moment when her life is coming to an end in a sheepfold.”
UMBERTO GIORDANO: ANDREA CHÉNIER, 1981
Another role for which Gabriela Beňačková is famous is Maddalena – the young heroine of a verismo opera about a poet executed during the French Revolution. Plácido Domingo sang the title role in the performance at the Vienna State Opera.
LEOŠ JANÁČEK: JENŮFA, 1982
Someone should write a novel or an ode about how Gabriela Beňačková sang Jenůfa. The conductor František Jílek had not only Beňačková at his disposal, but also Vilém Přibyl, Naděžda Kniplová, and other outstanding singers. Just a year later, Charles Mackerras’s legendary recording was released on the Decca label. Both recordings are beautiful in their own special way.
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK: STABAT MATER, 1983
The superb conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch recorded the oratorio in Prague, where he gave a number of his great performances including Dvořák’s Requiem. “I truly admired maestro Sawalisch,” said Gabriela Beňačková concerning their collaboration. She appeared on the recording together with the soloists Ortrun Wenkel, Peter Dvorský, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering.
GREAT ITALIAN ARIAS, 1986
Gabriela Beňačková recorded a selection of the most famous Italian arias with the Czech Philharmonic and the conductor Bohumil Gregor. His recordings of vocal works still remain some of the finest available. Here, Beňačková sings the expected “lirico spinto” repertoire, but she also includes dramatic arias from Tosca and Turandot.
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK: RUSALKA, 1987
This recording is of a performance at the Vienna State Opera. Leading the performance was Václav Neumann, who had also conducted an earlier recording of the opera with Beňačková and the Czech Philharmonic. In the Vienna production, Peter Dvorský appeared as the Prince, and the outstanding Russian bass Yevgeny Nesterenko sang the part of the Water Goblin. The dramatic soprano Eva Randová sang the parts of the Witch and the Foreign Princess as a double role.
ARRIGO BOITO: MEFISTOFELES, 1989
Under the baton of Maurizio Arena, Gabriele Beňačkové was assigned two roles. In Boito’s setting of Goethe’s Faust, she sang the lyric role of Margherita as well as the dramatic role of Helen of Troy. The recording was made at the San Francisco Opera.
DVOŘÁK, JANÁČEK, MARTINŮ: SONGS, 1993
Firkušný’s piano playing and Beňačková’s soprano voice come together in tender sonic delicacies that do not become intoxicated with their own beauty, but remain in the service of the songs being performed. The album also received a Grammy nomination, and it is at the absolute zenith among Beňačková’s song recordings.
LEOŠ JANÁČEK: KÁŤA KABANOVÁ, 1997
In the 1970s and ’80s, Gabriela Beňačková missed out on Charles Mackerras’s cycle of Janáček for the Decca label. In 1997 she was able to make up for it. According to Mackerras himself, “In many respects, Gabriela Beňačková is the ideal performer of Káťa Kabanová.”