Cosmopolitan Charm, in Martinu's 'Mirandolina'

WOO-1424-Mirandolina-250-PrimaryOperas have been written by composers all over the world for centuries. Still, there are certain countries more closely associated with the genre than others -- including at least one that often flies under the radar.

Opera was invented in Italy, and not surprisingly many of opera's greatest names are Italian: Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini are just a few examples. Yet Italy is hardly the only place where opera has found time to shine.

In the 18th-century, Handel, who spent much of his career in England, almost singlehandedly made London a capital city of opera. At various times, Paris was also an international, opera hub, with composers such as Lully and Rameau writing some of the most lavish operas ever composed.

Then there's that one place we've already hinted at -- a region that should be famous for its contribution to opera, but that all too often gets short shrift. It's the area in and around what we now know as the Czech Republic.

Bedrich Smetana, composer of the brilliant and popular comedy The Bartered Bride, is often cited as the father of Czech opera -- and that's a significant achievement, given the legacy of great Czech operas his music helped to inspire. Some of those works were composed by Smetana's younger contemporary, Antonin Dvorak. Later, Leos Janacek turned out what may be the greatest body of operas by any 20th-century composer. And, alongside Janacek was another composer who made an essential contribution to Czech opera in the 1900s: Bohuslav Martinu.

Martinu was born in Bohemian town of Polička, in 1890. And, while he spent much of his life living abroad, he's widely regarded as the most prominent Czech composer of the 20th century, after Janacek. Today, he's best-known for his symphonies and other orchestral works; he may well be the most significant Czech symphonist since Dvorak.

Yet Martinu also devoted a great deal of his career to opera. He wrote about 15 of them altogether, beginning with piece called Soldier and Dancer in 1928. His most famous opera is probably his last one, The Greek Passion, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It was completed shortly before Martinu's death, in 1959. The opera featured here, Mirandolina, was premiered in Prague that same year, though Martinu finished the piece several years earlier.

Martinu was among the most inventive and versatile composers of his time, and that's easy to hear in Mirandolina. It's a charming comedy, with an ironic edge, based on an Italian play by Carlo Goldoni. Even the libretto is in Italian, written by Martinu himself. Yet, true to the composer's roots, much of the opera's infectious music is in a style that's intrinsically Czech.

Martinu once commented that Italian "is a very singable language," and that he "had fun working with it." Yet he noted that he wrote the music "in Czech style and not Italian," saying, "There's quite a big difference." As Martinu put the finishing touches on the score, in July of 1954, he called it "a light, uncomplicated thing with the accent on melodiousness."

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Martinu's Mirandolina in a production by the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre, presented in the Antonin Dvorak Theatre in Ostrava. Soprano Katerina Knezikova sings the title role, in a performance led by conductor Marko Ivanovic.