Josef Mysliveček
The Bohemian composer

I want to draw your attention in this feature article to the Bohemian composer, Josef Mysliveček (1737 –  1781).  He’s having something of a revival due to an excellent film about his life. In his own time, he was a popular and major pioneer in the establishment of the Classic style in Europe. Mozart’s youthful opera (he was 12 when he wrote it), Mitridate, Re di Ponto. was influenced by Mysliveček the way very early Verdi was influenced by Donizetti. Now a film by the director Petr Vaclav is doing service in reviving interest in the actual works of the composer.

Josef Mysliveček didn’t have a long life (he died aged about 44) and it ended appallingly, debt ridden and physically actually rotting from syphilis. That life is portrayed in Vaclav’s film (2022), Il Boemo. No one much could pronounce his name in Italy so he was referred to simply as The Bohemian.

The film is sumptuous and visually beautiful. The palaces, sets and costumes strongly evoke the era at the highest level of society. The excerpts of various operas by Mysliveček are brilliantly staged, musically convincing and costumed beautifully. One feels that the performances are authentic reproductions of the originals. Even from the few excerpts in the film you can feel how good the composer was easily as important as Dittersdorf and Haydn if not quite up there with Mozart and Gluck.

The script doesn’t have a pivotal theme beyond simply retelling the story of the life. In that sense it’s rather like an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic. The film opens with Myslivecek at the end of his life when he is disfigured by syphilis and then the rest of the movie is a long flashback telling you the story of how he got there. He came to Venice as a young man to study and (at times in morally questionable ways) worked his way up to the top of his profession while living a louche lifestyle. The film made me think of the novel about the world of castrati, Cry to Heaven, by Anne Rice in the accurate portrayal of backstage life of the world of opera. Vojtech Dyk is riveting and totally convincing as Il Boemo and certainly attractive enough to be pursued for his sexuality and its promises as well as his musical talents.

After the opening, the main part of the film reverts to 1764. Josef has come to study in Venice and is looking for work as a violinist. He attracts the interest of a rich young woman who helps him but his real breakthrough happens because he becomes the lover of a lascivious marchese played to the hilt by Elena Radonicich. Under tutelage by her that changes him from a provincial into a hedonistic sophisticate, he blossoms both sexually and musically and is offered a commission to write an opera for San Carlo in Naples, at that time Europe’s largest and most important opera theatre. Josef becomes, simply, the most sought-after and prolific composer of opera of his era. We meet the young Mozart in the film; and it’s worth noting that in real life Mozart had a great regard for Josef. They met in Bologna in 1770 and Mysliveček remained friends with the Mozart family for years. Josef is mentioned in Mozart’s letters to his father on several occasions, most poignantly in 1777 when there is a description of Josef in hospital after an incompetent surgeon burned off his nose while trying to treat apparent symptoms of tertiary syphilis. The scenes of Josef conducting while wearing a mask to hide his disfigured face and then removing it at home show us what Mozart described.

Warner Classics has released a very fine CD of the soundtrack recording and if that does not redeem your interest in this composer, I’ll be surprised.  The singers include Sophie Harmsen, Philippe Jaroussky, Raffaella Milnesi and Benno Schachtner, and others all in top form. Collegium 1704 directed by Vaclav Luks. All the performances feel (and in the film, look) authentic. Arias and scenes from eight of the operas appear on this extremely worthwhile CD. I was particularly taken with the scenes from Armida, Il Bellerofonte, and Romola ed Ersilia, but it’s invidious to rank these stylish tracks, all of which open up curiosity about each individual opera. And if you are tempted, a few of the operas are to be found in complete performances on YouTube. Have a look!

If you’re searching for brilliant, historically informed recreations of excerpts from some of the most important operas by Myslivecek, operas that were among the founding works of the Classical style, this is a good place to start. Try also to see the film Il Boemo. It’s a fine introduction to the works and is bound to point you to further exploration not just of the operas but also of symphonies, religious works and chamber music by this unjustly neglected composer.

The film, Il Boemo, was shown in London on 18 November 2023 as part of the Czech Centre’s 27th Made in Prague Festival. The superbly evocative Soundtrack CD is on: Erato 505419728147