Smetana: Libuse / Jaroslav Krombholc, Et Al
Libuše isn’t a traditional opera, rather a large-scale cantata, composed for the coronation of a Czech king. The work was completed in 1872, but it soon turned out that the coronation would not take place and it wasn’t until nine years later that Libuše was premiered to celebrate the wedding of the crown prince and to mark the opening of the National Theatre in Prague. By then Smetana was deaf and wasn’t able to hear a note of this, his most monumental work. The story draws upon an ancient myth about the origination of the Premyslid dynasty of princes and kings, who ruled the country for eleven hundred years.
The opera is divided into three acts. The first is entitled ‘Libuše’s Judgement’ and deals with the conflict between the brothers Chrudoš and Stáhlav; the second is ‘Libuše’s Marriage’ and the third is called ‘The Prophecy’ and concludes with six historical pictures, narrated by Libuše.
For those who only know the opera composer Smetana through The Bartered Bride, the light-hearted and folk-music inspired rural comedy, Libuše may come as a shock – or a revelation. I labelled it ‘monumental’ in the first paragraph of this review and that’s exactly what it is: monumental, solemn and grandiose. When I bought the present recording on four LPs almost forty years ago I only knew Moldau and The Bartered Bride. Since I knew nothing about the work – and was silly enough to start listening without reading the very extensive introductory notes in the booklet, far more comprehensive than the short essay in the CD inlay – the fanfare that opens the overture had me sit up and once the surprise was over I wallowed in the monumental flood of glorious music that streamed out of my loudspeakers. Fanfares, processions and powerful choruses are recurrent in the work, brass instruments naturally dominate much of the proceedings and Wagnerian Leitmotifs are part of the parcel. There is even a beautiful quartet of harvesters in the second act; they seem to be Smetana’s equivalent of Wagner’s Rhine Maidens.
Grand and majestic the music often is, but it is also permeated with warmth and surging melodies. The long prelude to act III is noble and memorable. And there are some hard-hitting dramatic scenes as well. For the Czech people this work has a special significance, not least through Smetana’s ambition to create declamation that emanates from the Czech language. In that respect he is a fore-runner of Janácek.
Recorded more than forty years ago the sound is still much more than acceptable and the singing and playing of the forces from the Prague National Theatre is totally idiomatic. The lack of libretto is however a drawback and even though there is a rather detailed synopsis in the booklet I was glad that I had access to the original book from the LP set.
Monumental music needs monumental solo voices as well and by and large the singers on this recording meet that requirement. Most crucial is the title role and Nadežda Kniplová is admirable throughout. Hers is a grand dramatic soprano, very expansive and with the thrilling ringing top notes needed to ride the orchestra without problems. But she also sings with great restraint and feeling for the more intimate nuances. The recording sessions were spread over seven days and I suppose Ms Kniplová was able to record her part in smaller doses. In the theatre this role must be a tremendous challenge, not least to have to sing the six concluding pictures after so long and strenuous an evening. But even if she was able to record smaller portions in the studio this is a glorious achievement.
As Krasava, Milada Šubrtová is splendid, more lyrical than Libuše but still with glorious ring, and Vera Soukupová’s rounded contralto makes her an excellent Radmila.
The male singers are more of a mixed bag. Karel Berman’s sonorous and dark bass is imposing throughout and Zdenek Kroupa, lighter and brighter, is intensely dramatic, but not free from strain. This is even more of a nuisance in the case of Ivo Zidek. Basically he has a fine tenor voice but he seems several numbers too small for this role and has to push for volume – the result is far from successful. Václav Bednár, a lyric baritone, sings rather beautifully, but not without some strain and unsteadiness. Jindrich Jindrák is worn and wobbly, though dramatically he is well inside the role.
As for alternative recordings there are, or have been, at least three others. Alois Klima conducted Prague Radio forces back in 1949 with the legendary Beno Blachut as Stahlav. Zdenek Kosler, like Krombholc with Prague National Theatre, set down his version in 1983, Gabriela Benackova singing the title role (1983) and in 1995 Oliver Dohnanyi, with the same forces and Eva Urbanova as the best known soloist, recorded it once again. I haven’t heard any of the rival versions but having known the present version for so long I can honestly say that it is easy to overlook the deficiencies and enjoy the work at large and the many fine contributions from many of the singers, in particular Nadežda Kniplová. In this new incarnation, at an affordable price and squeezed onto only two CDs, it is competitive. But what has the cover picture of a modern teenage girl have to do with mythology from the eighth century?
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: SU3982-2
Composer: Bedrich Smetana
Conductor: Jaroslav Krombholc
Performer: Antonin Votava, Helena Tattermuschová, Ivo Zidek, Jaroslava Vymazalová, Jindrich Jindrák, Karel Berman, Milada Subrtova, Nadezda Kniplova, Václav Bednáf, Zdenek Kroupa