The Devil and Kate, Opera by A. Dvořák
Sometimes great opera is inspired by the scenario chosen by its composer; at other times, the quality of the music seems almost too good for the tale it accompanies. That’s the impression one has when first encountering Antonín Dvořák’s The Devil and Kate.
A work that is light-hearted and inconsequential, even the demons (there’s more than one) in The Devil and Kate are neither sinister nor scary. Lucifer has sent Marbuel to drag a princess down to his domain. Instead he is landed with Kate whose incessant chatter and love of dance drives them both to distraction.
A shepherd called Jirka follows them to rescue Kate, but Lucifer and Marbuel are more than happy to release Kate from hell. For one thing, they can’t cope with her energy. They also decide that she and Jirka can help them to capture the Princess. Allowing Jirka to overcome the devil who will come to claim the Princess’ steward will, they believe, lull her into a false sense of security. Thanks to Jirka’s ingenuity and Kate’s sense of mischief, however, it is Lucifer and Marbuel who end up being duped.
Dvořák was particularly keen to write The Devil and Kate (or Kate and the Devil as it is often called). Maybe there was something about the opera’s origins that intrigued him. A libretto by Adolf Wenig, which took its source from a comedy by Josef Kajetán Tyl that in turn was based on a children’s story by Božena Němcová, makes this the most Czech of Czech operas.
The composer was delighted by the reception his new work was given at its premiere at the National Theatre in Prague on 23 November 1899. Praised for its orchestral colour and dramatic drive, its narrative and setting gave Dvořák the opportunity to indulge his love of his country’s folklore. Dance, in particular, is present throughout this fairy-tale opera, with a waltz, polka and polonaise all making it a magical example of musical theatre. As audiences in Prague will discover, The Devil and Kate proves that high and low art can live together in perfect harmony. Particularly when in the hands of a master craftsman such as Dvořák.