Bedrich Smetana: Branibori v Cechach/The Brandenburgers in Bohemia (1866)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes.

Another opera I have meant to review for about two years. This is actually the second time I have attempted this as I got through the first scene once but then threw out what I wrote. In general, the score is seen as a combination of Wagner, Weber, Verdi, and Meyerbeer and isn’t all that bad. The libretto, however, is generally considered to be rather idiotic, if rabidly anti-German, which has precluded its ability to travel much beyond Czechia (although it did have two productions at the Slovak National Theatre in 1921 and 1933, and one in Vienna in 1924 when a troop from Olomouc performed all of the Smetana operas there as a series). It was first performed in Germany in 1994 (Bautzen) and was produced in the UK in 1978 and 1981. In Czechia it is the least performed opera by Smetana, but is still performed more frequently there than the lesser operas of Dvorak or Janacek. However, it does include the only real villain in the Smetana operatic canon, Jan Tausendmark. The opera requires more main characters than probably any other Smetana opera: ten in total including two sopranos, a contralto, no less than three tenors, two baritones, and two basses. This review is of a 1985 live performance in Prague (which is cut by around eight minutes). I have supplemented this with the Supraphon release of the opera available on Amazon Music.

It should perhaps be explained why the Smetana-style (which he himself termed Smetanism) was what it was. Partially it was out of commercial necessity: the National Theatre in Prague lacked dramatic sopranos and Heldentenors (as well as true basses), but it was apparently stocked full with high lyric sopranos, high light lyrical tenors (an unclassified Czech subspecies of the leggiero capable of sustaining long lines in the treble octave of the range and possessing an almost muted lower range), lyric contraltos a plenty, and graceful lyrical baritones (best displayed in long slow passages), thus almost all Smetana operas are cast for those four very specific vocal types. This makes his operas difficult to cast because some of the roles (like Dalibor) actually require a high dramatic-lyrical tenor, and all of his operas require singers who can sing over a massive Wagnerian orchestra, and that is not easy when you have a voice designed to sing Mozart or Rossini. As for through-composition, all of the dramatic operas resemble Lohengrin in their usage of a basic leitmotif system and heavy usage of ensemble numbers (Smetana was partial to ensembles over arioso, he did write arias but they tend to be short or involve choral accompaniment, for instance, the first aria Smetana wrote, for Liduse, is all of ninety seconds before it transforms into a duet). The comic operas (excluding the Krasnohorska operas) were initially operettas with spoken dialogue. The three later operas are at various stages with The Kiss being the zenith, followed by a steady decline towards necessitated brevity. Although Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz are generally seen as his primary influences, his tendency towards through-composition by ensemble and chorus rather than amplified recitative would indicate the influences of mature Rossini, Donizetti, early Verdi, and Meyerbeer, the more traditional camp of 19th century music rather than its progressive one. Since he went deaf in 1875, he could not possibly have heard anything by Wagner after Meistersinger, and his earlier operas could not have been influenced by anything later than Lohengrin, so his devotion to Wagnerian theory must be in terms of orchestration and through-composition since the other elements of Wagnerianism had not yet been developed or Smetana composed his own works in direct opposition to the style of Wagner. Smetana also never sacrificed vocal beauty the way Wagner did (whereas Parsifal is an, albeit gorgeous, orchestral tone poem mascaraing as a stage play in which singing pupi spouting out ideological Schopenhauer, Libuse is a ceremonial opera based on a non-philosophical myth with gracefully Italianate vocal lines if Wagnerian orchestration).

SETTING: Prague, 1278-1283. The historical background of the story is that following the death of King Ottokar II at the battle of Marchfeld, his widow Kunigunda called in the Brandenburg German forces to Bohemia in order to remove the Austrian troops of Rudolph von Habsburg. Once the Austrians left, the Brandenburgers decided to occupy Bohemia, arrested the queen mother and her son, the young King Wenceslas, and allied with Rudolph by leasing Bohemia for five years, after which they promise to hand it over to him. As for the plot of opera itself: the basic premise involves a case of multiple kidnapping, namely of Ludise, Vlcenka (sopranos), and Decana (contralto), the three daughters of the mayor of Prague, Volfram Olbramovich (bass), who up to this point has been willing to make peace with the Germans in spite of the protests for war from his friend Oldrich Rokycansky (baritone). This occurs because Ludise rejects the advances of a German Jan Tausendmark (baritone) because she is the lover of Junos (tenor), a Czech Praguer. The subplot (because there is one) involves a runaway serf named Jira who is elected leader of the Praguer rebel movement, arrested by Olbramovich as a gesture of good faith to the Germans when Tausendmark accuses him of the kidnapping, and is convicted and sentenced to death. Another character, the only actual Brandenburg in the opera, is Varneman (tenor) the Capitan of the German troops in Prague who gets into a massive argument with Tausendmark over what to do with Ludise and her sisters, but particularly Ludise, but we don’t meet him until act two.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (51 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the country estate of Wolfram Olbramovich, mayor of Prague. (27 minutes)

0: The opera opens ** with around forty seconds of a stormy whirlwind (a leitmotif for the Brandenburgers) which really sets the tone of the work and we are off into a long dialogue about current events in Czechia circa 1280 between Wolfram Olbramovich, the mayor of Prague, and a knight named Oldrich Rokycansky. Each gets a vocal highlight: a noble toast from Olbramovich (set to a leitmotif which I think represents the Czechs) and a fiery passage from Rokycansky.

9: The citizen Junos arrives reporting on the looting and plundering the Brandenburger troops are currently inflicting upon the city **.  The men assembled vow to remove the German troops from the city (Czech motif).

15: Ludise, one of the three daughters of Olbramovich, comes on with a brief aria looking for her beloved Junos but discovers not him but Jan Tausendmark, a German Praguer who is in love with her, but she rebuffs his advances violently **. The German retreats threateningly.

22: Vlcenka and Decana, her sisters, arrive with their ladies and pray for their father who is currently in battle with the Germans **. They withdraw but Tausendmark returns with Brandenburg troops and kidnap the three daughters.

Scene 2: A Street in Prague at night, debauchery occurring. (24 minutes)

27: The chorus of debauchers is good enough **, and certainly energetic as they orgy about. We meet a runaway serf named Jira who will prove to be one of the most important male characters in the opera. He drums up anti-Brandenburg sentiments in a good number, followed by a ballet.

34: Rokycansky arrives and leads the men in a patriotic chorus (followed by the women) **.

39: The three sisters arrive (apparently not under guard? aren’t they kidnapped?) Ludise gets into a dialogue with Jira **. He does more troop rousing.

41: Jan Tausenmark arrives and beats on Jira. Decana lends her contralto and starts off yet another rousing ensemble number **. Jira and Jan confront each other, and he throws him to the ground. The girls are taken back into custody by the Brandenburgs but their father arrives to some Wagnerian orchestration. Olbramovich pleads with Tausenmark for the release of his daughters and even orders for the arrest of Jira as a sign of faith between the two men.

49: The act finale is a fiery bit ** as Jira gets dragged off and the girls remain under German custody.

ACT 2: (44 minutes)

Scene 1: A village near Prague. (18 minutes)

0, 8: The act starts off with a chromatic prelude * (notice especially the woodwind work). A blind old villager tells the villagers to pray to G-d, they do *. They are preparing bags of essentials as they fear that the Brandenburg troops are about to arrive and destroy their village, so they are going to hide in the forest.

12, 17: The Germans arrive! ** and the chorus panics force-9. Varneman comes on with the three sisters in toe and beats on the poor old man. A messenger arrives from the German Prince of Bandenburg telling all non-native born inhabitants are to leave Bohemia in three days (notice that the march tune is close to the main melody in Hubicka).  The native Czechs greet the news with jubilation * but Varneman decides to take advantage of the three days and sends word to Olbramovich that the ransom for his daughters is 300 gulden.

Scene 2: Court House, Prague. (10 minutes)

19: The court room scene has to be taken as a whole for it has no specific highlights **. Olbramovich presides at the trial by jury as mayor, Tausendmark testifies, but it is the defiant testimony of Jira (who already knows he will be convicted because the accuser is a German) that causes the death sentence to be given. Jaros arrives with the ransom request from Varneman. Olbramovich decides to pay the ransom, in spite of protests from Jaros. (This scene should probably be seen in connection to the trial scenes in Dalibor).

Scene 3: Same as Scene 1. (15 minutes)

31: A very nice aria from Decana **. Her sisters come on eventually as well but Ludise has a rather ornery monologue and before long she is alone on stage.

40: Ludise has another solo, thinking about Jaros, who suddenly appears (and got into the Brandenburg encampment?) and makes things more interesting in a short love duet **. Varneman comes on, Jaros flees, and the German tells the girls that since the ransom has not arrived, they will have to go to Brandenburg where they will be sold to the highest bidder (seriously, Germans enslaved people in the 13th century?). Technically, the second act ends with a quartet here in which the three girls and Varneman go off but for some reason this has been cut and the second act is thus somewhat awkwardly combined with the third act. It is available on the Supraphon release of the opera on Amazon Music Prime (which is nine minutes longer than this performance), but I don’t think it really adds much to the opera as a whole.

ACT 3: The same (43 minutes).

1: Varneman and Tausendmark confront each other about the girls in a fiery duet **. The best music here goes to Tausendmark as Varneman is just a tenor brute whose music is deliberately ornery.

5: Tausendmark gets a long romantic aria ***. Really quite beautiful, especially considering how he is the villain of the piece. He has a dialogue with the Old Man from earlier in the act and plots to kidnap Ludise so she is not sold to any other man.

13: The girls come on rejoicing ** that the ransom will soon be paid and they will be liberated. The Old Man comes on and escorts the other two girls out while Ludise is kidnapped by Tausendmark.

18: A lovely intermezzo from the orchestra ** followed by a gentle male chorus **. Junos comes on with Rokycansky looking for Jira (whom they have liberated from prison).

27: The Old Man comes on and gets a good aria *. Junos finds the Old Man and menaces him.

31: Jira finally arrives telling Junos that his forces are storming the city. The villagers come on, the women in particular are fierce here **. Tausendmark is found and attacked by Jira (who does not kill him, however). Ludise is restored to Junos.

36: Another ensemble ** with a sort of rising motif.

41: Olbramovich arrives and is reunited with his daughters. He makes Jira is foreman and frees him from serfdom for his heroism. The opera ends with a patriotic hymn **.

COMMENTS:

The problem with The Brandenburgs in Bohemia is how episodic it is. The scenario could be cleaned up rather a lot, but instead it starts to border into I Lombardi pageant sweep. Another problem is that the best music goes to the boys, with the very best number in the opera going rather awkwardly to Tausendmark, the villain of the piece, (this is made more ironic by the fact that this aria is actually an addition to the original score and was not part of the original concept of the opera). The female characters are rather passive and boring, with only Ludise actually contributing anything to the plot and with Decana being the only one who is actually musically interesting, and then only for one aria and specifically because she is a contralto. The most attractive of the tenor parts is Junos, Varneman is a bit brutish and Jira, who actually does more plot-wise than any of them, does not really get much to do after act 1. Rokycansky seems slightly irrelevant to the story. Overall, the score is very melodic with a demonstrated mastery of Italian and French operatic forms including cabaletta and concertate. The choruses would be worthy of early Verdi. The libretto is admittedly silly, even a bit cluttered, but the score is rather consistently very good, even if only one number can be evaluated as great. B+/A-.

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