Bedrich Smetana: Libuse (1881, composed 1872)

Festival Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes.


Image from Cesky narodni divadlo.  

I know, why am I doing Smetana’s most Wagnerian works first?

SETTING: Ancient Bohemia. Libuse is the all-wise prophetess-Queen of the Czech people who has been asked to settle an inheritance dispute between the brothers Chrudos and Stahlav at the behest of their sister Radmilla which is one of the opera’s three “problems”, the others are a flimsy triangle between the brothers and Krasava, daughter of Lutobor (who is estranged from his daughter because of this triangle), and a dispute over having Libuse, a woman, as ruler of the Czechs and her choice of husband. It all ends well with Libuse providing a series of prophecies that make me cry with tears of joy, and I’m not even Czech!


ACT 1: (47 minutes)

Scene 1: A fire temple.

0: The overture *** is magnificent, if a wee-bit Wagnerian, it immediately states the Libuse theme in a trumpet voluntary which gets continuously and gloriously reworked with various other instruments until you are almost sick of how good it is. There is one other theme (Premysl) which is rather grand and comes as a second half of Libuse’s theme.

12, 14: The opening scene flows well as a conversation between the three female characters as they discuss the dispute between the two brothers. Libuse eventually calls upon the Czech deities for guidance ** and this turns into an ensemble with a near mystical climax *** which stops cold but then we get the trumpet voluntary, and then Libuse goes off to a mild rendering of her theme.

18, 20: Krasava is extremely agitated and confides in Radmilla about a strange vision she has had in which the entire land is engulfed in fire **. She turns more romantic as she tells off of this infernal thought and waxes lyrically about how she will soon reveal all **.

Scene 2: Under a sacred lime tree.

21: A descending theme ** punctuated with brass dominates the scene for six minutes. The men try to end the dispute between Chrudos and Stahlav, but everyone’s thoughts turn to Libuse being their female monarch and they want her to choose a husband to be their king. It all sails on a sea of agitation for the longest time (all good I might add).

27: The theme is replaced with Libuse theme music as her ladies descend ** including one carrying the law and then the Queen herself as Chrudos reveals that he hates Krasava for being a cheater who is carrying on with his brother Stahlav.

29, 35, 39: Libuse makes her address ** at first in a cappella, but then followed by a whirling theme during which she reveals that although she was a daughter of King Krok, she was chosen by them as their ruler, she introduces the two brothers and their case then allows Chrudos to speak first as the elder brother. The dispute is over which law system should be used to determine who will inherit their family estate. Under German law, Chrudos would inherit all as first born, but under Czech law the land should be divided between the two brothers or co-managed between the two of them. Each brother makes his case amid a sea of Wagnerian brass and strings although Stahlav, being a tenor, has a lyrical upper hand *. As a vote is taken by the other men to settle the dispute, Stahlav wonders where Radmilla (his sister) is whereas Chrudos believes that he is seeking out Krasava. The verdict (by popular vote) is to uphold Czech law and divide the land between the two brothers which pleases Stahlav but enrages Chrudos who uses the fact of Libuse’s womanhood against both her and the verdict as a vicious insult **.

43, 45: Libuse worries that her ruler might come to an end because of her sex and decides she must marry and asks her people to choose the man for her. But her people demand that she be free to choose whatever man she wishes without any discrimination on their part. This climaxes in a grand ensemble *** which restores Libuse’s faith in humanity as she declares the farmer Premysl as her choice. The people acclaim this choice with immense fanfare ***.

ACT 2: (58 minutes)

Scene 1: Lutobor’s estate, near the family graveyard.

0, 5, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25: The prelude * is a little weird, at first brooding and then with the woodwinds going around in all directions before the curtain rises and we get Lutobor’s feelings about being the father of Krasava (very negative). The girl herself arrives asking her father’s judgement upon her ** about loving her cousin (Lutobor is the uncle of Chrudos, Stahlav, and Radmilla), who has been cut off because of his refusal to accept Libuse’s rule (Lutobor is apparently her big supporter), he responds by comparing his relationship to her to that of various animal species because he no longer believes that he could be her father. She reveals that she loves Chrudos, which is a problem because by his words and actions he has demonstrated that he doesn’t love her, in fact he apparently hates her. This is apparently the reason why she has caused him dishonour. She has been pretending to love his brother Stahlav in order to make him notice her positively, but it has had the opposite effect (probably due to the bad blood between the two brothers in the inheritance dispute). She moves to waltz time * as she thinks of just getting one look from Chrudos and Stahlav and Radmilla plead with Lutobor to take his daughter back. He eventually relents, but there is still the problem of Chrudos, who has already been summoned by Lutobor. If Chrudos is willing to submit to Libuse’s rule he will forgive his daughter, if not she is eternally disowned and he leaves to a loud crash from the orchestra *. Chrudos arrives and makes it rather plain that he has no intention of making up with Libuse and curses the entire female gender.  Krasava confronts Chrudos demanding that he love her. He is confused, thinking she loves his brother, but she goes into a lot of backstory about why she only pretended to love Stahlav in order to make him (Chrudos) jealous, but it backfired. Eventually she threatens to take her own life, this finally convinces Chrudos of her feelings and the five are reconciled as the other three rejoice **. Although it does end well, it is the weakest scene in the opera by far.

Scene 2: The home of Premysl.

28, 31: The intermezzo starts with Premsyl theme and a cello solo * and turns into a quartet for two sopranos, a contralto, and tenor as farmer workers going out to work in the fields **.

34, 40: Premsyl’s first utterance ** as he watches the sun reach noon and predicts that a change is about to occur in his life as he remembers when he and Libuse went to school together (somewhat odd given the time in which the opera is set but whatever). He goes into a section about coming to Libuse’s defense to her theme. He blows his horn and the quartet strike up their number again. They arrive with all their work done in a happy chorus *.

42: Premsyl, alone, thinking about Libuse and lime-trees *** (sacred to Ancient Czechs), in an aria set to a continuously whirling theme.

46, 52: He hears the arrival of Libuse’s courtiers *** who greet him with tidings that he has been chosen by her to be her Prince-Consort. His workers greet this news with rejoicing and he realizes that this news is the fulfillment of all his dreams ***: now he can be with Libuse for as long as they both live. He will rule with her and be father of a dynasty of rulers because of her. He bids farewell to his father’s home, not unlike a princess in a Western opera upon learning that she has been chosen to marry a king. However, he is informed that of the conflict between Libuse and Chrudos and he decides to remedy the situation. The finale is satisfactory but not quite up to the level of the previous five minutes or so.

ACT 3: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: Under the Lime-Tree as in act 1 scene 2.

3, 5, 10, 11: The prelude is okay gentle music as we come upon Libuse (who we haven’t seen in about an hour) as she presides over the peace ceremony for the two brothers and their uncle **. The five family members express their thanks ** to her. Trumpets announce the arrival of Premysl and Libuse is incredibly excited **. Her ladies arrive and give her flowers and blessings. She compares herself to the moon, Premysl to the sun, and her ladies to the stars that will guide her to her happiness **.

Scene 2: The Wedding Feast.

12, 18: The last intermezzo ** has the intensity of 20th Century Fox film score.  There is still one problem, Chrudos is not reconciled with Libuse. Stahlav begs him and Lutobor demands that he give up his prejudice against Libuse and make peace with her. Only Krasava’s love sways him to reconciliation, which is just in time as well as the court arrives dressed like Druid rejects from a production of Norma amid Libuse themed fanfare ** post-wedding.

21: Premysl makes his first address as Prince-Consort **, in which he declares that it is Libuse who guides him. Notice also how high he is singing, it is in the upper part of the baritone range and almost makes him sound like a tenor as he duets with Libuse.  The chorus does more acclaiming.

26: Premysl first judgement **. He worries about Chrudos and his need to reconcile with Libuse for his insult again her. Libuse reminds him that some way must be found for them to be reconciled that will not degrade Chrudos. He offers his estates and riches to Premysl. Chrudos says “Let peace come through humility”, but Premysl takes him by the hand and they are reconciled.

32: Everyone praises Premysl for his noble deed ***, but we are not quite finished yet…

34: Libuse suddenly possess the gift of prophecy *** and goes through a pageant of Czech history to come. She predicts: 1) The Prince Bretislav will extend the kingdom, protecting it from a danger to the west and abduct his wealthy bride Jitka, while also saving sacred remains (the relics of St. Adalbert). 2) Jaroslav will protect the country from the Tatars. 3) A prince who will extend the kingdom from sea to sea (tell Shakespeare! it’s Otakar II, the father of Elizabeth of Bohemia, mother of Charles VI (incidentally both the University and Bridge are named after him). 4) Then a whirlwind comes and she predicts the rise of the Hussites and their leader Jan Zizka. 5) Finally George Podebrady, who will be elected by the people as king and be a great ruler both during war and peacetime, (this contains the first references to the finale).

48: Finally Libuse’s eye dims and she can go no further (convenient given that the opera was written in 1872). She predicts more troubles, but the Czech nation will never die. The final chorus can come off as one of the greatest moments in musical history as they proclaim: “Cesky narod neskona, on pekla hruzy slavne prekona!” “The Czech nation will never die! They all hell’s horror’s will ever resist!” with Krasava’s soprano descant “Slava!” soaring above everyone else which never fails to bring tears to my eyes *** as a trumpet voluntary closes the opera.


If Dalibor had a complex plot with numerous scene changes and sexually ambiguous title character, Libuse has almost no plot and its characters are all explicitly  heterosexual. Instead of a plot, the opera has four situations which explore themes of inheritance law, a female ruler who finds her power being threatened by sex discrimination and chooses a wiseman to be her husband, a love triangle that really isn’t a triangle and actually creates more problems between father and daughter than within the triangle itself, and the future of the Czech nation. What is cool about this opera, or rather Czech opera generally, are the strong female protagonists. Premysl is a wise man, but he is not king, he is Libuse’s husband and thus Prince of the Czechs. Because of the grandeur of the work (composed for coronation of Franz Joseph as King of Bohemia, which never ended up happening, it ultimately opened the Narodni divadlo in 1881) it is just too over the top on pageantry and frankly Wagnerian jumbo-size spectacle bordering on the emulation scene in Gotterdammerung while at the same time remaining distinctly Czech to be taken with 100% sincerity (unless you’re Czech, of course), but it must be either an alpha plus or an alpha surely.

One response to “Bedrich Smetana: Libuse (1881, composed 1872)”

  1. I just want to thank you for a very informative and good blog! Written with a lof of knowledge, and humour, as well. I came over it by occasion searching for reviews of Wagners “Rienzi”, which I am a great fan of. Really nice that you reviewd the Downes recording of this extraordinary work. I also appreciate having beeing introduced to so many operas I did not know from before, for example Smetanas “Libuse”, which I have been listening through this evening with great pleasure. Indeed a Wagner inspired work, I guess you also noticed the similiarity to Wagners “Rheingold ouverture” in it. Thanks again! If possible, it could be interesting to know a little bit more about the author of this blog and your background.
    Best regards from Thomas, Oslo, Norway.


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