SMETANA: Libuse – Overture and Act III – Maria Podvalova, soprano/ Stanislav Muz, baritone/ Ota Horakova, soprano/ Vilem Zitek, bass/ Marta Karasova, mezzo-soprano/ Prague National Theater Chorus and Orchestra/ Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Overture)/ Vaclav Talich – Supraphon SU 4279-2, 50:39; Singing of the Czech National Anthem 3:45 (5/22/2) [Distr. by Warner Classics] *****:
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) created a festival opera or “festival picture” about Queen Libuse, the legendary founder of Prague, and the piece meant to open the city’s National Theater in 1881. When the Theater burned down, the opera initiated the rebuilt Theater in 1883. The title character prophesized the founding of the city. Originally, Smetana wished his fourth opera to celebrate the coronation of the Emperor Franz Josef as King of Bohemia, but the coronation’s failure to materialize delayed the first production of the opera. Smetana, much in the same spirit of Dante, Wagner, James Joyce, and W.B. Yeats, felt that art could provide a musical identity to an otherwise divided nation. That Smetana embodied the Czech national voice in music had been confirmed by his idol, Franz Liszt, who had played several of Smetana’s piano compositions and then asserted, “Here is a composer with a genuine Czech heart, an artist by the grace of God.”
If Smetana embodied the heroic impulse in his people, so too did conductor Vaclav Talich (1883-1961), the sensationally gifted acolyte of Czech music well documented in the symphonic repertory of Smetana, Dvorak, and Suk. Until now, no recorded documents of Talich’s expertise in opera has emerged: but here we have the concert performance of 29 May 1939 at the National Theatre, the concert reading of Libuse that occurred just before any further performances became strictly banned by the occupying Nazi invaders. The surviving acetates, or varnish foils, of Act III – captured initially by Norwegian Radio – had been in the possession of soprano Marie Podvalova (1909-1992), noted for her portrayal of Princess Libuse. Immense and intensive labors from Milos Guth and Jan Lzicar have managed to reconstruct Act III in its fragmented form, still a brilliant testament to human will and artistic integrity that ends climactically with an inflamed audience – used to holding hands during the aria – moved to sing collectively the Czech National Anthem after their long, tumultuous applause. The accompanying Overture to Libuse Talich recorded in 1940.
The Act III of Libuse portrays a double wedding at Vysehrad stronghold, that of Libuse to Premysl and of Krasava to Chrudos; these commitments occur after many an intrigue and fierce rivalry. Premysl has contrived a means for Chrudos to apologize humbly to Queen Libuse for his former slight, without his having to lose face. In a moment of spiritual rapture and forgiveness, Queen Libuse experiences a moment of visionary prophecy, a solemn moment in which Libuse declares, “My dear Czech nation will survive, endure, and gloriously, gloriously, overcome the horrors of hell!”
Ms. Podvalova has a resonant, deep chest tone; she had not developed the fatal wobble in her voice that also came to haunt the later work of Maria Callas. The entire Act III devotes itself to reconciliation and unity of spirit. The influence both of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhauser seems prevalent, especially in the female chorus “Welcome to us” and the Ceremonial Procession. The two male protagonists have a brief but solid scene in “O brother, my dear brother.” The large ensemble piece, “May your wedding be blessed,” has the emotional impact of Mussorgsky’s Coronation Scene in Boris Gudonov and much in Wagner, and its explosive, patriotic fervor leads ineluctably to the extended final scene, “O gods almighty,” Libuse’s prophecy. In the horn section, we hear the Hussite rhythm and motto that invests Ma Vlast with its noble power.
Detailed program notes trace the etiology of this recorded document and the multifarious efforts by which the processes of recording and restoration were effected. Mr. Vlcinsky in his notes raises the specter of the original audience, to whom Smetana’s opera “must have sounded to Czech ears as an immensely bold declaration of national pride and courage.” Along with the 2012 Supraphon issue of Talich’s Ma Vlast and the Op. 72 Slavonic Dances series of Dvorak, let us hail the indomitable integrity of Vaclav Talich and his Czech compatriots, who collectively withstood the world’s political apathy and opportunism that denied the very spirit that arises in the course of this immutable performance.
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