Opera in two acts and three scenes. Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
I have been saving this one for the 103rd birthday of my favourite classic film actress, two time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland.
Also this will be kicking off our feature theme this month: Smetana!
Every Monday at 12:01 EST a new review will come up this month, plus one sometime in the middle of the month.
The first opera Smetana completed to a libretto by Eliška Krásnohorská, this remains the only one of their three collaborations that gets usual airings in Czechia. It was also the first opera Smetana wrote after going deaf (and undergoing painful futile treatments), but do not be put off by this, as this is probably the most melodic score Smetana ever wrote, truly the apogee of his creative abilities.
SETTING: A Czech village and environs. Lukaš is in love with Vendulka, but his parents forced him to marry another girl, now deceased, who left him with an infant son. Vendulka has remained unmarried during this time, so Lukas, after a respectable period of mourning, makes his intentions known to her father Paloucky, who objects to the match because the two are both so stubborn, but he consents because Vendulka wants it. She refuses to kiss Lukas until they are married, which infuriates him.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (59 minutes)
0: The overture *** is a piece of comedic theatre genius. It starts off with the main theme blasted in fortissimo, gets slowed down into more of a wedding march tune, and then turns a bit more melodramatic. We then switch over to a polka tune (it shows up later when Lukas gets drunk and dances with the village girls later in the act), and then finally end with a crescendoed build up of the opening melody (which will return rather a lot).
5: Vendulka! Vendulka! The opening scene ** Aunt Martinka comes running on looking for Vendulka: Lukas is coming to claim her as his new bride! Vendulka is so excited for this, having waited years for his wife to finally die in childbirth. Her father, Paloucky, comes on warning that because they are both such stubborn individuals, their relationship is ill advised but Vendulka objects, and he begrudgingly changes his mind for her. Barce, the housekeeper, comes on frantic that Lukas is about to arrive.
10: Dobry vecer! Lukas arrives with his brother-in-law Tomas so the former can make his intention to marry Vendulka public. Paloucky gives his blessing with a certain level of irony, which annoys Lukas. The entire scene is accompanied by marvellous polka rhythm weaving from the orchestra ** (this is particularly obvious during the choral contributions).
19: Ma nejdrazsi! Lukas beholds Vendulka and addresses her like she were Venus ***, they then embark on a soft and delicate in-unison duet about how they will belong to each other forever, eventually backed up by the chorus. Three minutes of utter beauty. He makes to kiss her, but she evades him. Paloucky is certain that this is the beginning of the end and Vendulka continues her protestations against kissing Lukas.
22: Aj hle! A fugal ensemble ** gets broken up by Tomas breaking in with a drinking song toasting the couple. Climactic finish, and the orchestra finally winds down from all the whirlwind it has been giving us.
25: Nikdy, nikdy v hori svem After the constant bombardment with (admittedly excellent) polka rhythms for nearly half an hour, it is nice that their long love duet *** is a slower and quieter piece. Lukas assumed that the refused kiss was because Vendulka wanted to retain a certain level of public propriety. Brace brings in the cradle containing the baby that Lukas had with his first wife (who gets a descending scale leitmotif that pops up frequently for the rest of the duet). Vendulka takes a liking to him and her maternal drive seems to kick in, which just makes Lukas hotter for her (Smetana accompanies her monologue with this interesting upper string suspension which may be a reference to how the sunset is supposed to be setting at this point in the libretto). He tries to kiss her again, and again she repels him, this time violently. Now Lukas gets a bit angry as she pours sand on the floor of the room to find the footprints of the ghost of his dead wife (believing that she will guard the infant at night). Smetana then provides a short-winded but catchy tune as he tries again to kiss her, but again she refuses: not until they are married will he kiss her, otherwise she fears that it will upset the ghost of his dead wife. When he continues, she threatens to throw him out.
40: Jak jsem to rek Paloucky returns ** ironically remarking that the rocky situation is just as he figured (Smetana gives him some interesting bass coloratura). When Lukas asks one last time, and Vendulka again refuses, he storms out of the house. She wonders where he has gone and Aunt Martinka comes on and tells her: the local pub.
47: Jsem mila polka samy vech Meanwhile, Auntie has problems of her own *: she needs to find a girl to help her collect contraband from smugglers at midnight (I know, where the heck did this come from?!?). She asks Vendulka if she knows of any such girl willing to brave the trek at such a late hour. When the younger woman says she doesn’t know of any such girl, and Auntie accuses young women of being too delicate, she is left alone with the infant.
50: Hajej muj andilku Vendulka sings a lullaby to the baby ***, which she breaks up into a couple of verses, the second is brilliant, if a little haunting, but she falls asleep after a second go of it.
54: Jaka hanba! The act finale *** Barce comes on and wakes up Vendulka after a round of polka music is heard outside. Lukas has gotten very drunk and paid a band to play outside the house as a way of intimidating Vendulka into giving in to him, claiming that if she won’t kiss him all the girl in the village will collectively give him a thousand kisses. She confronts him (as does Tomas who upbraids him for acting worse than a little boy), telling him that their relationship is over (to the wedding march theme that opened the opera but in a slower tempo), and decides to run away from home because she is just so embarrassed at what he has done.
ACT 2: (45 minutes)
Scene 1: A dark forest, midnight, a hallow stage left, a spring stage right.
0: Smetana seems to have really been deaf because the entr’acte ** starts with a series of violent chords based on the music that ended the act, then it goes Wagnerian, and finally a replay of the romantic themes from the previous act come on effectively before bogging into a smuggler theme.
2: Jen dál! The chorus of smugglers with their leader Matous trip about on stage effectively enough *. Not bad, just of a lower voltage than the nuclear musical war that goes on around it. Sort of an eye of the storm calm.
6: Ja nestastnik! Lukas comes on terrified and remorseful of what he has done to Vendulka. He searches for her in the forest and embarks on a passionate aria amplified by a strongly passionate orchestration ***.
11: Jen odporsi ji Tomas comes on looking for Lukas ***, who admits that were it not for the fact that the innocent Vendulka would be blamed for it he would rather bash out his own brains right now. He feels that for him there is no forgiveness, but Tomas tells him that all he needs to do is ask for forgiveness from Vendulka (wedding tune returns). The two men leave. Matous and the smugglers have overheard everything (after all they lay in wait of Martinka, what else do they have to do?). They continue their sedate, if slightly haunting, chorus.
21: O, jak jsem mohla Vendulka and Martinka come on. Martinka uses a series of whistles to communicate with the smugglers and Matous comes on. He promises Vendulka, who is still incredibly sad because of Lukas, that everything will work on in the end in a beautiful trio ***. Matous leaves as dawn is about to come.
24: The dawn is musically portrayed as one would assume **. Martinka asks Vendulka if she likes working with the smugglers, negative says Vendulka. Martinka then embarks on a comic scene with the border guard (smuggling in goods underneath some decoy pears she supposedly picked in the forest). Comedy ensues as the guard accidentally dumps all the pears, but never finds the contraband goods.
29: Dobre ti ukazal Alone, Martinka tells Vendulka the moral of the story **: male pride makes them want to enslave the women who love them. Vendulka refuses to go back and marry Lukas.
Scene 2: Outside the cottage of Martinka.
34: Hlasej, ptacku, hlasej Barce comes on with wonderful news (that she got from Matous): Lukas is coming again for Vendulka. She can’t find the two other women so she tells the birds to spread the news **.
36: Zdet Martincino pristresi The four men show up, Matous leading Lukas, Tomas, and Paloucky to the cottage. The whole number is very good, but the main element is a long monologue for Paloucky in which he expresses to Lukas his need for peace after all the craziness that has transpired since last evening **.
40: Tot on! Tot ona! The finale *** Vendulka arrives, and this time it is she who attempts to kiss Lukas, and he rejects her kiss. Everyone starts to worry again, and this time Vendulka is despondent. After the general freak out, Lukas admits that all she wanted was a good thing, for them to wait to kiss, but Vendulka has other ideas now.
The Kiss is one of those operas that makes you thankful to be alive. Truly it is a little musical miracle, even though its genesis would imply utter torture. It combines the best elements of the Smetana-style (sprawling Wagnerian orchestration, glorious Italianate vocals, Czech polka melodies) in a consummate and, perhaps given the nature of the last two operas Smetana wrote, in its final mature form. What is more, it is just such a happy work. Even when talking about death or dead people the score never turns morose, but rather somewhat mystical. Although Smetana would write two more operas, in neither case would he repeat this, and comparisons of this to the later works will only amplify the shortcomings of those other operas. The orchestra is vibrant, strong, jubilant with polka-style and romantic melodies flooding out like a magnificent torrent. The vocal parts are incredibly challenging, with Lukas in particular requiring a tenor with an extremely high tessitura (the part rarely descends below an F natural below middle C and requires frequent sustained high As and even Bs). The plot is as simple as can be: a romantic complication (the refusal to kiss before marriage out of respect for a deceased wife on the part of the new bride-to-be) complicated by an intoxicated tenor widower and a runaway soprano heroine. Add in some smugglers and a happy ending and you have this! Being a Krasnahorska libretto, the work is feminist, with strong female characters (Martinka is a venture capitalist of illegal means; the choices Vendulka makes determines the course of action for the entire opera, including its resolution), but the male characters are equally strong (Paloucky makes his feelings known about the couple at every opportunity, Lukas proves both as strong-willed and as tender as Vendulka, the more minor Tomas and Matous take matters into their own hands when needed and are free with their own opinions. Heck even Barce, the maid, lets Lukas have it when he shows up drunk and dancing around with tavern girls! No one is afraid to express themselves or feels the need to be coy, it is rather refreshing. What is more, all of this unrestraint is far more believably human than most characters in Verdi, Wagner, or even most Mozart operas. This is up there with Hunyadi Laszlo as an Eastern European opera that seriously needs to be seen and heard in the West. An undoubted Alpha Plus.