Antonin Dvorak: Vanda (1876)

Grand Opera in five acts. Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.

This is probably not the longest recording of this opera, in fact there is a recording of the first three acts that is also on youtube and is almost two hours. This was Dvorak’s first opera designed to be in the style of Meyerbeer, although I personally think he was more successful a decade later with Dimitrij. The music is mostly of a gentle quality and what isn’t gentle is rather rousing, which is a plus. The featured image is Piotrowski’s depiction of “Smierc Wandy” the Death of Vanda.

PLOT: Near Krakow, 8th century. Vanda, daughter of the pagan Polish King Krakus, is declared Queen upon the death of her father. She is in love with Slavoj, a knight of humble birth but is actively pursued by Roderick, a German Christian prince who declares war on the Poles after Vanda seeks the help of a sorceress and rejects his suit. During the resulting battle, Vanda vows to kill herself as a sacrifice to her gods, the battle turns in the favour of the Poles and Vanda (after the continuous pleas of her beloved Slavoj not to go through with her suicide) drowns herself in the Vistula.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bvOIv9ydBI

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The overture is almost a classical construction starting with a furious theme, then going into a slow not quite brooding bit before going back to the furious theme that slowly dies away and then a waltzing tune before it reveals around half a dozen good melodies (including a quieter version of the furious theme which Dvorak keeps on redressing) then a quiet somber theme and then a festal version of the waltzing tune and then we are into the finale with yet another reworking of the furious theme and then we are done **.

ACT 1: Before the castle, Krakow. (ends at 48.30)

9: A pretty female chorus opens the act *.

13: Vanda arrives with her sister Bozena with the chorus which tries to rise to a climax but never does. The music turns more serious with Vanda rising to a high note *.

15: Vanda’s aria, in which she describes the past events of her life from carefree young girl to orphaned Queen.  The orchestra is somewhat all over the place but there is a single constant melody that pops back again and again giving the number cohesion *.

20: Slavoj arrives and after about two minutes of formalities in which he is let alone with Vanda, declares her ruler which she says is a little too premature and that he must leave her, he has a rather dabber and melodic (although lightly accompanied aria), very gentle ** in which he remembers their childhoods and bemoans the fact that as a man of low birth he can never be her consort.

22: Slavoj and Vanda duet **, the tune is nice just not passionate.

24: A modified variant on the opening chorus, but much more lively with Vanda’s high soprano towering above a marching female chorus **, but very brief.

26: Vanda’s address to her warriors who previous defeated Roderick is very mature as well as the first (plot important) reference to Roderick, foreshadowing the danger he poses *.

28: The High Priest addresses Vanda, she responses in kind and then there is some angry music for once, the scene is very serious *. The theme here must be a “pagan gods” theme.

33: Vanda takes wing ** but she is terrified of the idea of becoming Queen and she prays to the gods for courage.

35: Mystic interlude as Vanda is enthroned becoming a mystic choir as well **.

37: There is a dance *, interupted by some more chorus stuff and then a return to the dance. The second chorus is a bit more lively.

40: Suddenly, out of all of this, something really good pops up ***. A choral march praising the Star that is Vanda. At first just a great march, it becomes much more wild before returning to the pagan theme.

42: Vanda makes her vow to her people **, very noble.

45: The chorus sounds like it is about to explode. Some brooding gives way to a climax *** which when it finally reaches its peak you will understand the rating because it takes almost four minutes to build.

ACT 2: Same tableau. 28 minutes.

0: The preparations for the “feats of strength” competition that is to occur in this act in order to make the choosing of a husband for Vanda easier inspires a good opening chorus and then a similar Vanda recitative arrival as in the first act **. This time, however, she is with Slavoj, who is also competing in spite of the irritation this causes the High Priest.

5: The singer Lumir provides a musical description of the various suitors competing, the chorus is lively and the soloist tuneful **.

13: Then we have some agitated music, Slavoj and the High Priest get into an argument over the former’s right to compete which is ended by Vanda. Most of this is just recitative until suddenly ** we have an ensemble. Anyway, Slavoj wins the competition.

17: More agitated music and then a minor explosion * before the German forces of Roderick arrive and his herald

19: Harps bring in Roderick’s wedding proposal **. Very gentle considering what will end up happening. The High Priest is angry as usual.

23: Slavoj challenges Roderick for obvious reasons and we get the first taste of a deadly serious tune that will build up to the act finale ***. The two men cross swords briefly in a fight that is better and a little longer than the one in Lohengrin and Slavoj defeats Roderick and only Vanda saves the German from being finished off then and there.

26: The serious tune builds up again, starting in the male chorus and lower strings until everyone is on it except Roderick who patters away ***, and with that the act ends.

ACT 3: A rocky gorge near the cave of the sorceress Homena. 20 minutes

3, 6: The last three acts are combined exactly an hour long, to the second. This act begins with a brief repeat of the furious theme, this time in quiet mode and then Vanda immediately comes on as she goes to the sorceress Homena. Slavoj follows her with the theme from his aria. This is all okay recitative until Slavoj has an incredibly beautiful and lilting tune that turns quickly from arioso to duet ***. Vanda is very worried about the Roderick problem. It isn’t passionate (none of the “love” music in this opera is, but it IS very gentle and has an almost sacred quality). This is followed by a tune built off the more exciting one in the overture, this time almost in dance form **. Then more furious theme quietly threatening from below.

7: The introduction to Homena is a surprisingly inspired passage ***, the clarinet carrying her not so much haunting as mystic theme under the vocal line. The chorus that flows into this is just as good and has the chorus on some really fast work. Roderick arrives to ask Homena to implore her spirits for him and the chorus explodes again. The temperature lowers again as Homena starts her predicting.

11: Roderick’s fantasy is interrupted by Homena and finale Slavoj who challenges Roderick yet again (against stopped by Vanda), but while it goes on it isn’t bad ** but the orchestral accompaniment is a bit of a whirlwind.

15: Suddenly a theme pops in as the chorus comes on again that will reappear as the act ends (a slow cascade: ta-ta-TA-ta). Vanda tries to keep the peace melodically *.

17: Roderick declares war in the most peacefully  melodic way possible *, this leaves Vanda to ponder, Slavoj to be brave, and the chorus to go all dramatic at the end as all out war is declared.

ACT 4: The interior of a pagan temple. 23 minutes.

0: The act begins with a two minute prelude that includes a new forlorn theme and then brooding war music *.

2: The High Priest leads to a very Slavic sounding choral number * as the Poles prepare for battle. Very dramatic.

5: Then Bozena comes on with a pre-battle arioso * on a more jovial variant of the previous choral tune. The chorus makes interjections at points, followed by the High Priests and then there is some prep for the battle.

7.30: Vanda comes on in a terrible furious whirlwind that oddly doesn’t last that long. She gives a good troop rousing speech * and then makes her vow that if the Poles are victorious he will sacrifice herself.

11: So now we have a prayer *, very quiet and gentle with only a hint of agitation as the battle occurs.

14: And how it is time for the battle march **. It starts off slow and a bit dim and falls apart but then comes back with a vengeance and builds and builds until bam, it is over.

17: Slavoj returns and Vanda reveals her terrible vow to him in one of the most melodically quiet passages of the opera **. Suddenly crescendo and downward scales, the High Priest demands that the vow much be fulfilled and Slavoj is shocked and does not agree with this but Vanda seems determined.

22: Slavoj exclaims his terror of what has happened and then the curtain falls to the most obvious music a curtain could ever fall to *.

ACT 5: The rampart of Wawel castle, Krakow, the Vistula in sight. 18 minutes.

2: The prelude starts off oddly contented and then there is a brief flute bit. It is much more non-dramatic than what one would expect from Vanda after her suicide vow. But when she comes on at least we get a little gloom, melodic gloom. Then more contented music and more Vanda in arioso. Slavoj comes on and gives just a lovely sunrise gentle climax to the thing *. The two go on like this with sunrise music until the High Priest arrives and the music finally turns serious to some extent. In itself it really is rather good, but it is seems out of sync with where the plot is taking us.

7: There is much brooding  and discussion until Vanda turns into a mini-Senta *. Slavoj and Bozena try to stop her.

10: Vanda begins her farewell * and although he get a few repeats of the romantic theme of Slavoj’s act one aria this is low temperature recitative attempting to put off the inevitable.

13: Slavoj tries one last attempt at persuading Vanda to give up her plan but the High Priest will hear none of it and then finally Vanda goes Wagnerian one last time and jumps into the Vistula to drown herself **. Much action in the percussion. Slavoj watches in horror as Vanda drowns, the High Priest declares that the demand for sacrifice has been satisfied. Slavoj mourns his lost Vanda so tenderly.

16: The last two minutes or so consists of a minor choral apotheosis in which the Poles thank Vanda for her sacrifice **. One last outing of Slavoj’s theme (now a tragic memory) and much mood music brings the opera to a close.

This isn’t a bad opera. There are points such as in the beginning of the fifth act during which we are obviously in padding territory but this has more to do with the fact that the opera is a bit inflated for its storyline. There really isn’t enough here for a FIVE ACT opera, but it would make a good three act opera. The fact that it takes Vanda almost 24 hours to finally fulfill her suicide pact with the gods is dramatically inept, and so is much of the love music which really isn’t all that passionate (albeit some of it is very, very melodic). Slavoj, although his status as a low born knight propels the romantic narrative, is an extremely gentile character whose brief outings of violence (almost always directed at Roderick) are not what one would expect from a warrior of lower caste. His music borders on the gentleness of Lohengrin and he is probably the most sympathetic character in the opera. In fact, the Wagnerian references are all over the place not least of which the fact that the final suicide borders into the world of Senta and Brunnhilde. There are some problems, Slavoj and Vanda are really not all that passionate as lovers, their music does not seem to have inspired the passion Dvorak gaves to Dimitrij and Xenia a decade later. Their love music is melodious, but you never for a moment think that Slavoj has a chance of bedding the Queen. This does not make the emotional devastation of Slavoj following Vanda’s suicide any less poignant though. The opera also suffers from being extremely episodic, although this is mostly due to trying to spread out a brief storyline into five acts, so the attempt at mimicking Grand Opera comes off only so-so.  What each act is is a situation: first a succession crisis, then a matchmaking tournament that ends in going to be sorceress and a declaration of war, and then finally a suicide vow in exchange for victory and its consummation. The music is a bit uneven but there is only one patch (the lead up to the climactic suicide) that is even remotely dull and so even the one star items here are really quite good. There is great music in all of the act finales and the beginning of act 3; the rest is at the very least good. Although Vanda is no alpha opera, it is a worthy B+ and well worth a listen.

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