Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes.
Thanks to Kevin for suggesting this! It was a real tonic after all the depressing operas I have been listening to lately so I felt the need to just rush this out for everyone! It is still a bit long, 2233 words. Truly if anything was the omega to the alpha of The Demon (or perhaps reverse that) it truthfully would be this. This was the third time I have heard this opera from start to finish, and the Supraphon studio recording is in my personal collection.
Here is a bit of a change: a truly Cosmopolitan opera! Richard Strauss demanded that this opera be performed for him each time he visited Prague, possibly because it requires no fewer than three sopranos, the most substantive male role is a bass, and the two tenors (although one gets really great music and is pivotal to the story) are comparatively minimal. Also, does anyone else who has heard this opera notice the similarities between the writing here for the sopranos and the writing for the same vocal part in Strauss operas? Based on a one-act French comedy, the opera textually has only a fleeting Czech setting, although Smetana layers his score with polka-based themes. One would never guess that it failed miserably at its premiere, was revised twice, had material added to it, and would grow up to be perhaps the most appreciated of the lesser Smetana operas (of his eight operas it ranks fifth), although it is hardly ever performed outside of the Czech lands.
SETTING: Bohemia, 19th century. The soprano sisters Caroline and Agnes are both widows, but otherwise they are completely different personalities. Caroline is thrilled that she is a free and wealthy widow, Agnes still bitterly mourns the loss of her husband. Her admirer, Ladislav Podhájský (tenor), gets himself arrested by the gamekeeper Mumlal (bass), and he is sentenced to house arrest by Caroline, who then contrives to get Agnes to admit her love for Ladislav by making her believe that she wants him for herself. There is a very minor (if trivial even) b-plot (added for the 1877 revision) in which Lidunka (soprano), daughter of Mumlal, and her boyfriend Tonik try to get her father to consent to their marriage, which takes a while to come to a happy resolution. But this factors only as filler (the two minor characters appear for about five minutes in each act) while the rest of the opera consists mostly of a series of arias, duets, trios, and quartets for the four principles and a seemingly endless series of choral-dances.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: The veranda of a garden pavilion. (57 minutes)
0: The overture ** consists of a series of tunes from the opera and is sort of a cross between Donizetti and the obvious Smetana style without ever crossing over onto either side. It starts off with what would seem like a chase as the violins go mad (there are traces of my favourite number, a duet for the two sisters in act two, in the upper strings). It eventually slows down and does Má vlast on us, gets more furious, crescendos, builds, crescendos again before going out abruptly, changing key to something briefly more rural in the brass, and then one last crescendo.
6: Jitro krásne The act starts off with a loud and rousing opening peasant chorus **, certainly it would wake up anyone already asleep in the audience. They embark on a choral polka, stop, and then embark on a second choral-dance movement. Caroline is greeted warmly by the peasants.
13: Samostatne vladnu ja After the two sisters greet/rebuke each other for a few minutes, Caroline goes into a brilliant comic aria-exposition monologue ** which sets up the basic premise of the show: she is a wealthy landowner who loves her new found freedoms like voting, paying taxes, being an honorary man by the standards of her time, etc, her sister is frumpy and needs to get a new man!
18: Naše dobrá milostpaní Mumlal arrives and we discover just how full of himself he is in an enjoyable comic basso aria ** which gains comment from Caroline at intervals and eventually turns into a trio with Agnes added to thicken the mixture. Mumlal reveals his one problem, namely a young man who keeps trespassing onto the estate in the early morning, every morning! Agnes realizes that this is Ladislav and Caroline realizes that her sister has a yen for this guy. Mumlal thinks the man is targeting him and he goes into a description of him: around thirty, relatively good-looking although he seems to have a gap between his front teeth that gives him the ability to whistle like a bird (?).
28: Dlouho-li zde budu bloudit Vladislav comes on to the case music from the overture and gets himself arrested by Mumlal (something which thrills our tenor to the shock of the bass) **.
35: O, jakou tísen mé srdce cítí Caroline decides to sit in judgement upon the new prisoner and Agnes reveals (to the audience) the secret desire of her heart as Ladislav is brought in **. Caroline asks him to testify as to why he is here.
39: Aj, vizte love tam Ladislav makes up for lost time (namely that he was the last of the primary characters to show up) and Smetana gives him a marvellous aria *** about a hunter pursuing a doe through the forests (obviously a coded reference to his desire for Agnes) which is strongly influenced by Má vlast (it is almost the main theme, excluding the tempo and that it is in a different key).
45: Zde jest, milostivá paní A cute but brief * patter quartet (it does get repeated at the end of the scene). Caroline passes sentence (admitting that she really has nothing better to do): Ladislav is to spend the next 24-hours under house-arrest in her mansion, he will be quartered in the former rooms of her late husband, and he must eat nothing but what he has already killed that day (which is ironically nothing).
53: Nevábí ho medle sem Lidunka and Tomik bring on an amorous tune for the act finale **. The act abruptly ends.
ACT 2: A hall with a veranda. (69 minutes)
0: The entr’acte ** includes the first full iteration of the best tune in the opera, which is to follow. It is a bit stop-go, but this one show biz tune is just too refreshing.
2: Kdyzh zavítá máj Ladislav sings a gorgeous love song which resembles a folk song ***.
10: Není pochybnosti více Agnes rebukes Caroline for her decision to house Ladislav in her hour. Caroline sees no issue with this: she is unfeminine and Agnes is virtue incarnate, the two counter all suspicion. After a dialogue with Mumlal, the two sisters embark on the best number in the entire opera ***, a brilliant duet with a singular tippy-toe tune in the strings that is just irresistible. The rest of the number isn’t really all that amazing, but I really love that one tune (it is repeated: DO NOT miss that finish as Caroline goes from a high A, B-flat, B and then passes the A off to Agnes!) so it is getting the three stars. Caroline convinces Agnes that she wants Ladislav for herself.
18: Ach, jak krukte souzí After an orchestral interlude, Agnes finds a letter from Ladislav but is about to make to burn it, opens it instead, and discovers that it is a love poem. He arrives, they exchange words, and finally he declares his love for her and a tender duet begins **, but she is unable to express herself, he is ultimately reduced to parlando for some reason. He reveals that he fell in love with her when she was still married, and has spent the last two years since she was widowed trying to figure out if he was attracted to her just because she was the wife of another, but has come to the realization that he most definitely loves her.
29: Tobe, vdovo truchlivá Caroline returns and orders that Ladislav take her to the peasant ball and dance with her. This upsets Agnes who nevertheless continues her mourning act. Caroline then taunts her ** to a waltz tune as Ladislav begs the two women not to fight.
35: Aj, jaký to krásný den Agnes, left alone, embarks on a long outpouring of her true feelings for Ladislav, as well as a lot of rather tedious grief over the attention he is getting from Caroline. The first half is rather dreadful, either in the way it is being performed or just because it musically is so off-putting. The second half is a little bit better *, although it is an annoying tame number, the orchestra expresses none of the passion the vocal line is vaguely trying to express. It turns to a whirlwind in the last minute but by this point it is too late. In all honesty, the only weak number in the opera.
40: Necht cokoliv mne zlobí Mumlal cheers Agnes up with a fugal number about grumbling which salvages the proceedings from the temperature drop **.
44: Co to, holka Another rather well written comic number ** (if a bit furious) as Lidunka and Tomik try to get a wedding blessing from Mumlal and in which they teach him a lesson: if you wish others well, they will wish you well.
51: Láska mocná, vznešená Caroline and Ladislav return from the ball and chat about marriage, or rather why they aren’t. Caroline realizes that she is getting nowhere with her fake seduction attempt and Ladislav really just wants to puppy-play around Agnes. This goes on for what seem like three of the longest minutes in the history of the universe, but Smetana rewards us with another of his golden tenor melodies for Ladislav **. He is in love, but not with Caroline, most certainly with Agnes.
53: Jake to, ach Mumlal and Agnes come on just as Ladislav kneels before Caroline and kisses her hand. Thinking herself already betrayed, Agnes embarks on a sob-trip while the others try to convince her that it is all a misunderstanding ***. The two men leave and Caroline confronts Agnes with the truth: she has rejected Ladislav only because she is ashamed of herself for having treated her first husband so horribly during their marriage. She never really loved him at all, and what is more she was also harbouring feelings for Ladislav while still the wife of another. Now that he is dead, she can not undo what she did not do.
61: K selance pak nam The brilliant little tune *** comes back as Caroline reveals that she is really just a wonderful actress and has gotten her sister to admit her love for Ladislav, who has been listening behind the shrubbery the whole time!
63: Musí nás mít Pán Búh rád The finale ** is in two parts (and yes, I do know that that isn’t the long u when inside a word in Czech but WordPress doesn’t offer the proper symbol). First, a long interlude, a rousing chorus, and then an announcement from Caroline of the wedding. Mumlal is apparently unable to stop his own daughter from getting married, and Caroline finds a new admirer, at least for the time being knowing her love of independence. A Polka is danced, the chorus sing a happy prayer to G-d, and the curtain falls.
Dve Vdovy is almost the perfect mid to late 19th century cosmopolitan romantic comic opera. There are two things that prohibit this, one good and one bad. First, the good, is that Smetana has endowed the score with wonderful polka melodies which enliven the work and make it unmistakably Czech, thus making it possible to place the opera in a specific setting. Second, the bad, is that when Smetana removes himself from the comic element and turns to pathos, the result are almost lethal. Thankfully this only directly impacts a single number, the second act aria for Agnes, but it really puts a damper on the remainder of the opera (close to thirty minutes) even though it is followed by two comic numbers in immediate succession to it. Was it perhaps a holdover from the failed original version? Apart from this one bugaboo, the opera is incredibly witty and charming, the orchestration excellent and vital, and the vocals (especially for Ladislav) are really quite romantic (although what is up with that patch of tenor parlando in act two?).
Most Czech operas have at least one strong female character. Here I think that Caroline really more satisfies that demand than Agnes. The other characters are a bit stock: (Ladislav is a typical tenor lover if a bit more lively a personality at times, Agnes a somewhat dowdy figure, Mumlal is a stock comic foil that is full of himself, the others are nondescript or irrelevant), but from her first monologue we know that Caroline is a woman who prizes her newly acquired freedom (albeit through the death of her husband, who was apparently a colonel, if we are to take the text during the sentencing to heart). She play acts that she is interested in Ladislav partially because she really can’t stand that her sister Agnes does nothing but sulk in self-abasement. And then she gets what she wants: her sister on a neighbouring estate and off her own property! In her own lite comedic way, Caroline is no less capable than Libuše, Jenufa, Milada, Kate, or Vanda.