Martin Smolka’s “Nagano” has all the elements of grand opera: larger than life passions, adventure, romance and a triumphal finish. It also has a dancing hockey puck. Unlikely subject is the Czech ice hockey team’s gold-medal victory at the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. While expertly written and occasionally tuneful, Smolka’s rhythmically astute score serves mostly as accompaniment to his surrealist libretto, co-written with Jaroslav Dusek, and Ondrej Havelka’s wildly imaginative, vastly entertaining production.
The tale of the underdog team is seen through the eyes of third goalkeeper Milan Hnilicka (Vaclav Sibera), a minor player in real life. Characters include hockey legends Jaromir Jagr (Ales Briscein), who is currently with the New York Rangers, deified goalkeeper Dominik Hasek (Jan Mikusek) and former Intl. Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.
When the team is introduced as contemporary gladiators, howls of recognition sweep through the audience as real-life mannerisms and haircuts are aped. Stripped down to practice clothes padded to suggest massive muscles, the teams works out on gym equipment ingeniously formed by the dancers’ bodies. Jagr sings a duet with the ice rink, portrayed by chorus ladies in white gowns.
Hnilicka philosophizes about the competition in quasi-oriental style, as the text becomes gently, absurdly poetic. When he repeatedly sees the same woman in the crowd, Hnilicka muses, “Again I am stabbed by the darts of the unknown woman’s glances; she catches me in the nets of her eyes,” before serenading her in full-blown operatic Italian.
At the heart of the work are re-enactments of the three games that scored gold for the Czechs, against the U.S., Russia and Canada. The theater is festooned with banners, and the chorus members, in balcony boxes, become rowdy fans. Dancers multiply the team numbers as Martin Vrany’s athletic choreography features virtuosic, gravity-defying break-dance moves.
With the rival team about to score, the puck removes its cap, shakes out long blonde locks, and flashes a breast at the Canadian player: The distraction prevents the goal. Prompted by Smolka’s emotionally-charged anthem, the audience roars, as if present at the actual victory.
Sibera carries the show as Hnilicka, showing one man’s dreams while narrating an event of great historical significance for the Czech people. In a running gag, Hasek is portrayed by elfin countertenor Mikusek who sings his angelic text only in Latin (a highlight is his vocal duel of high notes versus low notes, with basso Zdenek Plech as a zeppelin-sized Canadian).
Libuse Vondrackova allures as the object of Hnilicka’s affection and a geisha who sings a lullaby to Hasek.
“Nagano” has been selling out since its 2004 world premiere, developing cult appeal far beyond the usual opera aud. It is quite likely the most fun you will ever have in an opera house.