Revelatory Dalibor

3 May

Where has Dalibor been all my life? One slightly shaming answer is that the CDs have been on my shelves, languishing unplayed for the last 20 years or so. I bought them in Prague in 1994 along with a load of other Czech classics and, what with one thing and another…  Well you know how it goes. So far as I know it’s not been done in London since the ENO had a go at it in the 1970s. So it was high time for the BBCSO’s concert performance at the Barbican on 2nd May.

The plot is interesting. Dalibor is a heroic outsider in medieval Bohemia. He has killed a Duke to avenge the murder of his best friend. The Duke’s sister Milada, demands justice, and Dalibor is condemned to death. At his trial she falls in love with him and determines to save him, disguising herself as a beggar to get into the gaol and, in due course, to Dalibor’s cell. They fall in love. The rescue attempt fails and both die. There’s a Rocco-like gaoler who betrays them to the king and a secondary couple who are loyal supporters of Dalibor. You can see the resonances with Fidelio but with a tragic ending. There’s an element of Don Carlos too – Dalibor is clearly an admirable character but just too dangerous for the regime. There is loads of potential in this plot.

The opera sort of gets some of it. There are problems. The first act takes a bit of time to get going with a lot of ceremonial marching and declamation of the story so far.  The Milada/Dalibor relationship really doesn’t get going until the end of Act II. The second trial scene takes a bit long as well. And often I felt that Smetana is too interested in the music rather than in creating a dramatic event. I felt that it needed an interventionist director – a Jones or Alden to find a way of making it compelling on the stage. I would throw away the Czech medieval flummery and turn it into a political tale set in a totalitarian state and in modern dress.  I’m sure it could work.

The music is mostly fabulous. Smetana’s orchestration conveys atmosphere, particularly for the prison scenes and is gorgeous to listen to. The opening prelude, very short, gives huge promise of the interest to come and the different colours in the score conveying the darkness, the joy and the love that exists in the story. It’s a joy to listen to music of this quality. There are some marvellous arias. For me the greatest was Dalibor’s aria in his prison after his dream: a gloriously intense, wistful aria of love which comes after a gorgeous prelude to the scene as Dalibor dreams of his former friend.  There’s an absolutely gorgeous horn obliggato and, listening to this, I felt the joy you get hearing something a glorious as this for the first time – stout Cortez time. This struck me as one of the great tenor arias that I’d not heard before. The following duet with Milada is equally good – impassioned, tender and very beautiful. I also greatly enjoyed the scenes for the lesser characters, particularly the gaoler, Beneš, and Jitka and Vitek. There are good choruses and I found it an entirely fascinating, very enjoyable evening. Some have suggested that the ending is too abrupt. To me, it felt absolutely right with nothing left to be said after the death of Dalibor. Others have suggested that a libretto translated from the German but deliberately trying to keep the German rhythms plays havoc with Czech: that probably worries Czech speakers more than it does me.

It was given an outstanding performance here. Jiři Bělohlávek conducted with care and passion. He made the best possible case for the music and it all sounded coherent and beautiful with the singers accompanied carefully and sensitively.  He patently loves the opera. He made you realise how much more there is to Smetana that the Bartered Bride. The BBCSO was in fabulous form.

The cast was all Czech and were without a weak link. Richard Samek was Dalbor – displaying a very pleasant lyric tenor. Perhaps he could have done with slightly more heft for the more heroic parts of the role – as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Pribyl which is, perhaps unfair.  He caught the tenderness really well. Dana Berišová as Milada displayed a gleaming lyric soprano capable of tenderness as well as easily surmounting the heroic side of the role – this is the woman who leads the rescue of Dalibor.

In the smaller roles, Jan Stava made an honest, nicely sung Beneš, Alžbĕta Poláchková a very fine Jitka who would have been a convincing Milada too, I think. Aleš Voráček made a strong, likable Vitek. Ivan Kusnjer did his best with the King, probably the least interesting role.

It was sort-of staged. The characters wore approrpriate modern dress and entered andd exited sensibly. The virtues of this were primarily musical and the intensity of the singing and the understanding of the words conveyed by the artists was all you needed.

I’d expected this to be a rather heavy, stodgy evening. It turned out to be hugely enjoyable and worthwhile. Dalibor deserves a staging here that takes it seriously.  It would be ideal for Opera North.  It’s probably too much to hope that the ROH could persuade Kaufmann to give the title role a go.  We can probably whistle for it in this age of austerity.  The audience here was on the thin side, but appreciative.  I’m really enjoying  my CD at last.  I do hope that Bělohlávek could explore some more Smetana in the coming years.

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