Friday, 4 January 2019

Smetana - Libuše (Prague, 2018)

Bedřich Smetana - Libuše

National Theatre Prague, 2018

Jaroslav Kyzlink, Jan Burian, Iveta Jiříková, Svatopluk Sem, František Zahradníček, Jaroslav Březina, Jiří Sulženko, Jiří Brückler, Petra Alvarez Šimková, Stanislava Jirků, Eva Kývalová, Olessia Baranová, Yvona Škvárová, Václav Lemberk

Opera Vision - 27 October 2018

One of the many not inconsiderable functions of opera can be that of defining and contributing to the idea of a national character. Every country is proud of its most celebrated composers and in many ways they do act as ambassadors for their nations across the world stage. The linking of myths, folk legends and tradition to musical drama is a natural connection and all of them can play a part in establishing cohesion around the idea of a nation as much as any national anthem.

You could even go so far as to say that composers themselves form part of that sense of national identity. The two greatest composers Wagner and Verdi indeed remain in such high standing in the world of opera because of the nationalistic colour of their works, Wagner in particular even going as far as to see opera as vital to the propagation and definition of who a nation and its people are. It's Wagner's influence that would lead Bedřich Smetana to consider preserving and celebrating the idea of a Czech nation in his opera Libuše, written for the opening of the National Theatre in 1881.

In the case of Libuše, the nation defining story is a fairly uncomplicated one, low-key even to any outsider not familiar with the characters and the mythology covered in the opera around the founding of Bohemia in 600AD. The Princess Libuše has been asked to pass judgement on a dispute between two brothers Chrudoš and Štáhlav, who have been fighting over their father's inheritance. Chrudoš as the eldest brother is demanding everything and rejects the verdict of a woman. To give legitimacy to her position say she will marry a man who will be acceptable to the nation, choosing Přemsyl, a peasant ploughman as her husband.

Act I lays out that situation in which everything is resolved and everyone reconciled fairly easily over the next two acts of choruses, ceremony and pageantry. That's the tone established by Act I of Libuše and that's the way that the Prague production is more or less plays out the rest of the opera, with no surprises or directorial intervention or reinterpretation. It's played as a traditional myth, the nobles wearing pale togas of Greek mythology, the peasants a little more colourful costumes. The design and almost ceremonial nature of the spectacle however is in keeping with the occasion, in this case the centenary of the Czechoslovakian proclamation of independence.

There's evidently nothing in the production that distracts in any way from the central purpose of the work, from the simple message of its drama to its relevance as a national myth. It's meant to look impressive and it does, the stage surrounded by a golden picture frame, the effects simple but effective using sliding platforms to parade figures in poses across the stage, with only a few firework effects at appropriate points. Elsewhere, the tone is of a bucolic pageant, with earnest intonations of patriotic sentiments and joyous celebrations of the beauty and honour of hard working on the land.

It's a case of it is what it is, requiring no deep concepts or analysis. It's not Parsifal or The Ring of the Niebelung and despite some superficial similarities it's not even Lohengrin. Libuše is opera as an occasion, a work that speaks to the Czech people, and Smetana fulfills that remit admirably. If it doesn't have anything revelatory to say about human nature to a wider audience, it does give us a little insight into Czech character, Přemsyl citing peace, mercy and working for mutual benefit as characteristics that will bring unity and peace not just in the resolution to the divisions between Chrudoš and Štáhlav but to the nation as a whole. This will be important, Libuše prophesies and warns, when the nation faces threats in the future from the East.

Smetana of course also wants to bring the essential Czech nature out in the music as well, allowing it to be expressive of the national character. Musically the influence of Wagner is there in the mythological grandeur of the nobles, but these are not Gods; the nature of the labour of the peasants in the fields is a celebration of the land itself and their music are celebrated as well in Libuše. It gives the opera a warmer character with individual colours and folk derived that has a more Russian character like Rimsky-Korsakov. There is room however for some lovely individual touches, such as the cello solo that opens Act II Scene II, the singing not so deep and declamatory as warmly baritonal and flowingly lyrical.

Links: National Theatre Prague, OperaVision