Thursday, 7 January 2016

Creaky plot, wonderful music, intriguing homoerotic overtones - Smetana's Dalibor

Smetana - Dalibor
Smetana Dalibor; Dana Burašová, Ivan Kusnjer, Alžběta Poláčková, Richard Samek, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiři Bělohlávek; Onyx Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Excellent live recording of Smetana's great nationalist opera

Smetana's opera Dalibor is a real rarity in the UK and this new disc from Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Onyx is a welcome addition to the catalogue. The recording was made live by the BBC at a concert at the Barbican, and originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The cast, all Czech speakers are Dana Burašová , Ivan Kusnjer, Alžběta Poláčková, Richard Samek, Svatopluk Sem, Jan Stava and Aleš Voráček.

The opera was Smetana's third, coming after The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride, but it was premiered in 1866 four year's before the final version of The Bartered Bride which was relatively unsuccessful during its opening run. Dalibor was relatively coolly relieved and it was only after Smetana's death that the piece took off in Czech speaking countries.

The story, based on the story of the 15th century Dalibor of Kozed. Dalibor is on trial for the burgrave of Ploskovice in revenge for execution of his friend Zdenek. During the trial the burgrave's sister Milada demands Dalibor's death but he narrates how the burgrave killed his friend Zdenek and his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. Milada realises she is falling in love with him. Act Two takes place inside the castle with Milada now dressed as a boy working for the jailer where she aims to free Dalibor. In Dalibor's cell he wakes from a dream about Zdenek, and sees him but it is of course Milada and they sing a rapturous love duet. Act three sees he attempted rescue which fails, Milada dies in Dalibor's arms and he embraces death so he can be with Milada and Zdenek.

There are significant  problems with the dramaturgy of the opera. The opening scene is rather too slow and lacks development, and the second act has a little too much of Fidelio about it. Dalibor and Milada seem to fall in love instantly, and the whole opera ends rather too abruptly. I can't imagine how it would work in the theatre at all. There is one point, which commentators seem to fail to mention, that is the intriguingly homoerotic nature of the plot with Dalibor's intense friendship with the dead Zdenek, and his mistaking Milada for Zdenek.

But Smetana had great love for the opera, far more than The Bartered Bride and it depressed him that the piece wasn't successful. You can understand his regard, but this rather creaky plot is glued together with some wonderful music. Not only in the scenes but there are lots of entractes and interludes, so that it is the orchestral contribution which counts for a great deal. The performance from Jiri Belohlavek and BBC Symphony Orchestra yields some ravishing textures and a lovely sense of Czech rhythms and melodies. Even though the music is grandly heroic, Smetana underpins it with a lovely sense of the Czech national style. The opera was, after all, intended to contribute to the development of the Czech national opera.

The best of the opera is the opening of the second CD, the last scene of Act Two which starts with the orchestral prelude depicting Dalibor's dream of Zdenek, followed by Dalibor's solo leading to the rapturous duet for Dalibor and Milada. And it shows off both Dana Burasova and Richard Samek's voices well. Reading reviews of earlier recordings, Smetana's rich scoring does seem to have caused balance problems, but here both Burasova and Samek are clearly audible and neither seems in danger of over-singing and both can relax into the gorgeous music.

Richard Samke has a lithe, perhaps wiry, tenor with a degree of dramatic heft, but he is also able to bring significant beauty of tone to bear in his Act One narrative and the Act Two scene in his cell. He is matched by Dana Burašová who makes a vibrant heroine, Slavic in timbre but not overly intrusively so; she is a complete credit to the model of Fidelio.

The remaining cast are equally excellent with Alžběta Poláčková as a bright toned Jitka, an orphan that Dalibor befriended, with Aleš Voráček as Vitek, Dalibor's messenger. Jan Stava makes a suitably gruff jailer Benes, with Ian Kusnjer as an imposing King Vladislav, and Svatoplu Sem as the commander of the King's guard. But more than anything else it is the sense of ensemble, and feeling for the particularity of the work which comes over.

The CD booklet includes notes and synopsis but you have to go to the Onyx Classics website for the libretto, which prints the English and the Czech separately.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra play superbly for Belohlavek, relishing all the symphonic interludes which Smetana gives them and producing some ravishing moments. Jiri Belohlavek clearly is not only fond of the piece, but understands how to make Smetana's rich tapestry of neo-Wagnerian heroics and Czech folk music work in performance.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) - Dalibor (1865/1884) [146.35]
Milada - Dana Burašová (soprano)
King Vladislav - Ivan Kusnjer (baritone)
Jitka - Alžběta Poláčková (soprano)
Dalibor - Richard Samek (tenor)
Budivoj - Svatopluk Sem (baritone)
Beneš - Jan Stave (bass)
Vitek - Aleš Voráček (tenor)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiři Bělohlávek (conductor)
Recorded Barbican Concert Hall, London, 2 May 2015
ONYX 4158 2CD's [80:23, 66:12]

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  • A marriage of French spectacle and Italian lyricism & poetry: A propos Gluck's Orpheus - feature article
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  • Reined in: Waltraud Meier in Mahler and Wagner at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Ancient and Modern: Fretwork, Iestyn Davies, Nicholas Daniel in Taverner & Tavener - concert review
  • Something satisfying about making people laugh: My encounter with director Sam Brown - interview
  • Intelligent programming< The Sixteen at Christmas - Concert review
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