Bedrich Smetana: Dalibor (1868)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

200px-smetana1854portrait

Bedrich Smetana, welcome to Phil’s Opera World! (Looks at me with disinterest). 

After a long time of him being totally absent here he is, the father of Czech Opera! Some might find it odd that I am starting out on Smetana with his only opera that has a tragic ending when I could have done one of his comic operas or even Libuše (it’s coming!). The libretto is notorious for being the most stilted in Czech opera because it was a direct translation from a German original and the verse apparently doesn’t resemble Czech speech patterns and comes off as incredibly artificial. I will admit that I have heard all of this opera at least three other times up to the death of Milada because of a prophecy that if I heard it to the end, I would die. So if the review gets cut off, that is why.

LINK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFAWKNhqsOo

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A great hall in Prague Castle. (47 minutes)

1: Dnes ortel bude provolán The opening scene ** as the chorus of peasants watch the arrival of the aristocrats who are to spectate at the trial of Dalibor. The seriousness is broken up by the cute song of Jitka, an orphan who had been minded by Dalibor prior to his arrest. The chorus then reprises their lament followed by some rather hopeful pep talking from Jitka who now believes that Dalibor will be released.

9: The Royal March * comes on in almost total silence at first but it is a theme that will return again and again as a sort of leitmotif for King Vladislav who then addresses those in attendance (more Royal March).

17: Pohasnul den a v hradê The trial starts with the long entrance (it takes seventy seconds of glorious harp and woodwind music for her to descend and bow before the king multiple times) and testimony of Milada, the sister of the Burgrave of Ploskovice who was killed by Dalibor **. She eventually ends up being accompanied by some furious stuff from the orchestra as she recounts her take on the events leading to Dalibor’s killing of her brother. This occurs to a series of stops and go’s ranging from a return of her entrance music to fury, the sum total of which is her thirst for vengeance which even Jitka is unable to overcome. Vladislav orders that Dalibor be brought and the two women express polar emotions: Jitka is about to break down, Milada has a backbone of steel.

26, 36: Zapírat nechci/Slyšels to príteli Dalibor arrives to an unmistakeable “man of the people” fanfare and Milada becomes instantly sexually attracted to him. Dalibor’s testimony *** is one of the most beautiful tenor arias ever written, it is hard to describe it without sounding ridiculous, as he recounts how the Burgrave captured and executed his friend, the musician Zdenek, which was the reason Dalibor slew him. It doesn’t take five minutes for Milada’s desire for revenge to be completely replaced with utter love for this man who she has both never met before and technically has reason to not like. The spectators get in on it when Dalibor threatens the King, declaring that he does not fear death now that Zdenek is dead and that more heads will roll if he is not killed, including even the King and eventually Milada ends up making tender comments. The King and the judges decide to be lenient, Dalibor will not be executed, but he will suffer life-imprisonment, prompting a great lament from the peasantry before Dalibor goes into a second, shorter monologue which is nevertheless just as good *** as the orchestra sounds like the flow of the Rhein.

40: U svých mne Milada begs the King to release Dalibor ** as the judges tell her that because Dalibor defied the King to his face no pardon is possible. He responds by telling her that he is duty bound to punish Dalibor (Royal March returns as he exits).

46: Ze zaláre The act ends with Milada and Jitka plotting to break Dalibor out of prison to the theme from the latter’s aria in the introduction **.

ACT 2: (54 minutes)

Scene 1: An inn on a street in the Lower Town, Prague.

2: After a brief orchestral introduction which goes nowhere, a happy chorus of drunk mercenaries * starts off the act.

5, 7: Jitka and her boyfriend Vitek at first sing a quaint almost Mozartian duet * (in which she gets upset with him for not coming home last night until after midnight, apparently she is living with his grandmother now) before their thoughts turn to Dalibor’s prison break **. She fills him (and us) in on how Milada has dressed herself up as a boy and managed to get a job at the prison.

9: It turns out that the mercenaries are Vitek’s men and Jitka praises the men to a high soprano descant **. The two depart and the mercenaries drink and sing until sunrise.

Scene 2: The living quarters of the Prison Warden.

14, 16, 20, 27, 31: Eery intermezzo sounding somewhat like the opening of Stravinsky’s Firebird * moves us into a dialogue * between the Warden Benes, and the Captain of the Guard Budivoj explaining how Milada (who Benes thinks is beggar boy who was previously surviving off of street performing) became his living companion as Benes is both unmarried and childless. The eery music returns as Benes expresses how miserable his life is **. Milada arrives with food and offers to take over for Benes doing the night rounds. Benes reveals that Dalibor is imprisoned below and that he frequently asks for a violin to play music, and he goes to fetch the instrument. Alone, Milada contemplates how quickly she has won the trust of Benes that she will soon be alone with Dalibor **! Benes returns with the violin and both utter a prayer hoping that music will fill his days *.

Scene 3: Dalibor’s cell.

33: Another intermezzo *, this one improved by the workings of a double bass and harp moving in sequence, then a violin, woodwinds, all working with a return of the theme from when Dalibor spoke of Zdenek.

37: Dalibor thinks that he can hear Zdenek playing the violin again in yet another gorgeous tenor aria ***.

42: Milada arrives and gives Zdenek’s violin to Dalibor who asks who ‘he’ is. She reveals her true identity ***.

48: They embark on a mini-liebesnacht ***, they fall into each other’s arms with vows of eternal love, the act ending with a minute of symphonic music (Dalibor hears Zdenek’s playing once more) and then finally an out of the blue heavy series of battery chords.

ACT 3: (47 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in Prague Castle.

0, 3, 8, 13: The act starts off with a very stately repeat of the King Vladislav theme from the first act * followed by a lot of brooding as Budivoj alerts the King to a revolt that is brewing in the city because of Dalibor’s imprisonment. Even members of the castle guard have been arrested as co-conspirators in a plot to break Dalibor out of prison. Things do lighten up a bit musically as Benes relates how he was tricked by Milada (who he still thinks was a boy) into letting her meet Dalibor ** and only learned of the conspiracy when Milada sent him a letter and some money to keep quiet about the prison break. Vladislav asks what is to be done with Dalibor **, now that it is revealed that he has committed treason against the Crown. The judges return and tell him that the situation is so much out of hand that he must have Dalibor executed before dawn **.

Scene 2: Dalibor’s cell, as in act 2 scene 2.

16: A return of the Dalibor motif * in an intermezzo.

19: Dalibor’s song of liberation ***, it is the third night, the one appointed by Milada for Dalibor’s release.

23: Budivoj arrives to take Dalibor away for execution, to the end Dalibor refuses to reveal that Milada is conspiring for his release, rather he calls him only “the boy” as Budivoj still thinks a young man has been plotting with him *. Musically, this is the most boring moment in the opera, although dramatically it is probably one of the most important. Not that it really is boring, just in comparison to everything else.

27: Dalibor greets death willingly ***, thinking only of Zdenek and that Milada might join them both in death.

Scene 3: In front of the prison, later that night.

31: Yet another intermezzo *, this one a little Mickey-mousing as Milada (now in feminine attire again) and her army of mercenaries arrive at the prison with Jitka and Vitek (remember them?).

37: After waiting for the longest time for the signal, funeral bells toll and a chorus of monks is heard from within the prison. So Milada orders the attack **. A chorus of women describe the attack from afar and Jitka declares that she sees Dalibor supporting a mortally wounded Milada.

40: Milada says goodbye **, the women sing a lament for her and Dalibor either commits suicide or is killed by Budivoj depending on the version performed or Milada doesn’t die at all and simply fails to save Dalibor from execution. Yes, there are three separate endings, don’t ask me why!

COMMENTS:

Dalibor is an incredibly sexy opera, in spite of the occasional moment when one can tell that the gears are shifting, which is much too often for comfort. The music isn’t seamless, there are obvious changes in mood which just come up behind one and sometimes, this is a irritating.

DIGRESSION ON DALIBOR AS A CHARACTER (CAN BE SKIPPED)

There is one big “if” in the plot: is Dalibor gay? The way he constantly thinks of Zdenek, and then at first believes Milada to be Zdenek reincarnated can easily lead us moderns to think that Dalibor’s sentiment is sexual love for another man, but is it really or are we just too jaded and sex-obsessed that the idea that two men who are not blood relatives could love each other and yet not be IN love? Or for that matter that two men could be in love with each other to the point of killing for each other, but in a relationship with no physical dimension? Dalibor does say that Milada must now replace Zdenek in his heart seemingly more out of duty than actual desire, he does fantasize beforehand of seeing Zdenek in the night and he has even killed Zdenek’s slayer and he seems to want a heavenly menage a trois for the three of them after they all get murdered in various ways. There are also two references stating rather plainly that Dalibor has never been sexually inclined to women before (the first in his first monologue) and in the second act love duet where they declare that they are embracing love virginally. With all this in mind, Dalibor does call the dying Milada his “wife” and when he dies he anticipates seeing both Milada and Zdenek again.

END OF DIGRESSION, please read on.

In spite of its three alternate endings and the poor quality of the language used in the libretto (which is only obvious to Czech speakers), the drama itself is very good and Smetana’s music is wonderful especially in the first act, the second act prison scene, and the third act prison scene. The best, of course, goes to the title character. If there isn’t very much of Jitka and Vitek (the closest the opera comes to comic relief) is this not irksome in the least as neither really does much and neither is vital to the plot in any way. Perhaps Budivoj (the closest thing to a villain) could have been present in the first act in order to build him up as a nemesis for Dalibor, but that is just quibbling. King Vladislav is a stately king, if a little wooden (is this a bad thing though?), but Beneš is a surprisingly good bass role. Although Smetana was attacked because of perceived Wagnerism here, it seems more the Wagner of Tannhauser if at all, and most of the vocal lines demonstrate familiarity with Bellini far more so than with anything Wagner ever wrote. There are mottos (especially for Dalibor, Milada, and especially Zdenek who is represented multiple times rather famously by a solo violin, the Bohemian national instrument), but these are not really proper leitmotifs at all and most of the score is devoid of such devices. An alpha.

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