B?lohl·vek has done more than anyone to bring authentic Czech music to
Britain, and to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, where he was Chief Conductor for
many years. They’ve got the idiom under their skin, now, and for B?lohl·vek
they played with expressive vigour.
Smetana has been called “The Father of Czech Music”, for he was the
first to embrace characteristic Czech folk style, fused with the bright, sharp
syntax of the Czech language. Dalibor is a particularly important
milestone, since it’s explicitly nationalistic. though disguised as folklore.
The Habsburgs ruled Bohemia from Vienna, and after 1848 clamped down on what
they saw as sedition. Dalibor took part in an uprising, destroying a castle and
killing the burgrave. Although Smetana downplays the politics (to escape the
censors) the message of Dalibor is loud and clear: Czechs love music,
and with music they shall triumph over repression.
Dalibor is a hero: “Dalibor! Dalibor” the chorus (the BBC Singers) rings
out with fervour, picked up wordlessly by the orchestra throughout the opera.
Jitka, a country girl (Alûb?ta Pol·?kov·) tells us how he saved her as an
orphan. Already though, we have a hint of his otherworldly purity. She sings as
though she’s describing a saint. Wonderful “processional” music marks the
entry of Vladislav, the Czech King (Ivan Kusnjer). B?lohl·vek has been
bringing the top singers from the Prague National Theatre, which he’s been
conducting for years, so these singers are now greeted in London as if they
were familiar friends. Besides, they can sing Czech repertoire better than
anyone else. Kusnjer’s voice rang with dignity. Like Pontius Pilate, this
King doesn’t want to kill, but Milada the Burgrave’s sister wants
Dana Bureöova sang Milada. She’s another much-loved regular visitor. She
sang the female lead in The Jacobin, The Bartered Bride and
most of B?lohl·vek’s other London performances of Czech opera. Milada is a
forceful lady, and Bureöova’s magnificent singing does her justice. The part
calls for great vocal control, for the lines ring out with the intensity of a
trumpet call, though Milada’s femininity is underlined by lustrous harp.
Later Milada disguises herself as a harp-playing minstrel to charm her way into
Dalibor himself (Richard Samek) is more of an enigma. He killed the Burgrave
because the Burgrave killed his friend Zdenek, who doesn’t appear in the
opera, but lingers, ghost-like, in the strings. Zdenek was a violinist, and
Dalibor’s love for him is so great that he’d rather be dead than live
without him. Nonetheless, when he meets Milada, his love suddenly switches to
her (on Zdenek’s musical messages). Dalibor’s a violinist, too. We don’t
hear him play but we hear the violins in the orchestra surround him in a halo
of sound. The smooth legato in his part suggests a bow gliding over
strings. Beneö the jailer ( Jan Stava), also a violinist, lets him have his
old instrument to pass the time, which Milada delivers. The violin is thus the
means by which Dalibor could escape from the dungeon. If he wished, of course,
because he doesn’t. When he’s caught by Budivoj (Svatopluc Sem, another
regular) and told he’s to be executed, he’s meekly accepting. Perhaps he
knows that his real secret weapon isn’t his life but his music.
“We Czechs love music” the text explicitly states, so the whole opera is
a coded protest, though the Habsburg Empire ended only with the end of the
First World War. Dalibor is wildly popular in Czech-speaking areas but
the message is universal. When Gustav Mahler conducted Dalibor in
Vienna in 1892, he may also have been making a private statement. Mahler was a
boy from small town Bohemia, where his father had followed the same profession
as Smetana’s father had done nearly 100 years before. Unlike Smetana, Mahler
made it to the capital of the Habsburg empire, chosen and protected by the
Emperor himself. Much is made of Mahler’s use of L‰ndler, reflecting the
sounds he would have grown up with in a German-speaking area in the provinces.
Mahler had been writing since his teens on themes connected to Des Knaben
Wunderhorn, even writing his own poems. Almost certainly he would have
been aware of Smetana. In Dalibor, for example, Jitka and Vitek (Aleö
Vor·?ek) sing a love duet which could come straight out of
Wunderhorn, though it’s clearly Czech. Dalibor is clearly
inspired by Beethoven Fidelio, although musically it’s very
different. But might Mahler have thought of Dalibor when he wrote
Das Lied des Verfolgten im Turm with its passionate refrain, “Die
Gedanken sind frei!”?
This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from 16th May, and
will be available online internationally.
product_title=Bed?ich Smetana: Dalibor, Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Bed?ich Smetana