Bedřich Smetana’s Masterpiece

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SMETANA: Dalibor / Valerij Popov, ten (Dalibor); Eva Urbanova, sop (Milada); Valeri Alexejev, bar (Wladislaw); Dagmar Schellenberger, sop (Jitka); Damir Basyov, bar (Budivoj); Valentin Prolat, ten (Vítek); Carmine Monaco, bs-bar (1st Judge); Alexandr Blagodarnyi, bs (2nd Judge); Bruno Pestarino, bs-bar (3rd Judge); Teatro Lirico di Calgliari Orch. & Chorus; Yoram David, cond / Dynamic CDS 296 ½ (live: Calglirari, 1999)

SmetanaBedřich Smetana was neither pleased nor comfortable when anyone brought up his popular opera, Prodaná nevĕsta or The Bartered Bride, in his presence; on the contrary, he was quite depressed about it, even on the occasion of the 100th performance when he was given a plaque and an honorarium including a bank book with money in an account for him. That was because he thought very little of it. He had knocked it off in a few weeks because he was tired of critics and audiences saying that he couldn’t write something in a popular style. He was thus not surprised that it took off at the opera house but, when he premiered the work he considered his masterpiece, Dalibor, two years later (1868), he was devastated by the fact that it was a flop. He died in 1884 convinced that Dalibor was a failure, but a revival two years later suddenly made it a huge success in the Czech Republic.

One of the criticisms against Dalibor was that it was “too Wagnerian,” but in listening to it today one hears very little of the daring harmonic sophistication of Wagner’s operas though it is clearly more complex music than The Bartered Bride. What made it “Wagnerian” in the ears of his contemporaries was the fact that the music was continuous, that there were no set pieces (arias, duets, etc.) for the audience to hum on their way out of the theater. But by 1886, audiences had become more sophisticated and Dalibor took off in his native land…but not much elsewhere.

The opera is set in the Middle Ages where the noble knight Dalibor is on trial before the King for murdering the Burgrave of Ploskovice; the Burgrave’s sister, Milada, is one of the key witnesses against him. But when Dalibor testifies on his own behalf, he explains that the murder was revenge for the Burgrave killing his best friend, the violinist Zdenék. Learning that the Burgrave was holding Zdenék prisoner, Dalibor offered to pay a large ransom as long as he was released unharmed, but when the Burgrave sent Zdenék’s severed head to Dalibor (he must have really hated his violin playing!), Dalibor killed him.

Seeing and hearing Dalibor, Milada is transformed by his noble bearing and high moral code and falls in love with him. The King admits that Dalibor had just cause but shouldn’t have taken the law into his own hands, so he is sentenced to death. Before he is taken away, Milada approaches him and tells him of her love for him and that she will do everything possible to have him released.

The rest of the opera in involved with various schemes to free Dalibor by a group of underground allies who are unfortunately found out and arrested. Milada, meanwhile, has disguised herself as a young man and secured a job as assistant to the head jailer, taking a page from Beethoven’s Fidelio. When Milada hears the bell toll announcing Dalibor’s execution, she joins the few rebels left in storming the castle and rescues Dalibor, but is wounded during the escape and dies in his arms. Dalibor, devastated by the loss, stabs himself and joins Milada in death.

In addition to the recording I am writing about here, which came out nearly a quarter-century ago on the Dynamic label, I’ve listened to four other recordings of the opera, two in Czech and two in German. The Czech recordings I’ve heard are those with Eva Dĕpoltová, Vilém Přibl and Václav Zitek, conducted by Václac Smetáček on Supraphon; Eva Urbanova, Leo Marian Vodička, Ivan Kusnjer and Zdenĕk Košler (also on Supraphon); Leonie Rysanek, Ludovic Spiess, Eberhard Wächter and conductor Josef Krips (live, 1969) and Felicia Weathers, Sándor Kónya, Gerd Nienstedt and Rafael Kubelik (also 1969). The Kubelik performance was the most frustrating for me because Kubelik was Czech himself, he normally conducted like a house on fire in live performances, and his is the greatest cast of singers, but for some reason he just couldn’t get the Bavarian Radio Orchestra to play the rhythms correctly. The whole opera sounds like a succession of plodding marches, none of which are right and all of which sound stiff and clumsy.

But this recording explodes like an atom bomb. I have absolutely no idea who conductor Yoram David is—I can’t find anything about him online other than that he conducted this performance of Dalibor—but he has the music firmly in hand and infuses it with a febrile energy that is palpable. And, except for the second soprano, Dagmar Schellenberger, who gets off to a pretty wobbly start in Act I, the singing is first-rate. Eva Urbanova has a typically Eastern European soprano voice, meaning somewhat edgy in timbre and with a noticeable vibrato, but the vibrato is even and she is one of the most exciting sopranos I’ve ever heard. Tenor Valerij Popov, a name previously unknown to me, turns in a terrific performance as the tragic knight with ringing high notes galore and a very credible dramatic portrayal of Dalibor. Baritone Valeri Alexejev is superb as the Czech King, and the whole performance jells so well that you stay riveted from start to finish.

Yet for some reason, this recording has no reviews online except at Amazon.com, and those are not very detailed or persuasive (one reviewer pans the recording because it is a live performance with stage noise). As for me, I was very impressed; this is clearly a masterpiece of music for Smetana, and why it isn’t performed much outside of the Czech Republic I have no idea. There isn’t a dull scene in it or a poorly written one, something you can’t say about Smetana’s “pageant opera” Libuše (some of which is good but much of which is just a bunch of fanfares with singing). So even though this recording was issued almost 21 years ago, I am reviewing it here in the hopes that someone out there will be as impressed by it as I was and buy a copy. If you are an opera lover, this recording belongs in your collection.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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