Bedrich Smetana: Tajemstvi/The Secret (1878)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

The second collaboration between Smetana and Krasnohorska, this was not nearly so successful as The Kiss. Unlike even his first opera, The Brandenburgs in Bohemia, the score is hardly through-composed, and in fact it is probably the most tuneless thing, but the characterizations are more fleshed out than in possibly any other Smetana opera. The premiere was not a success, in fact it was the second of only three mediocre first productions a Smetana opera was ever to receive (the first was Dalibor, one of the reasons why all of his remaining operas were comedic), and was only performed twelve more times before Smetana died six years later. It was dropped completely from the rep until 1922, since when it has been performed throughout the Czech Republic, but apart from two productions in the UK, Oxford in 1956, and the Camden Festival in 1972, it really hasn’t gotten out much. The plot is a bit… complicated… but let us take a look!

SETTING: The village of Bjela, northern Bohemia, in the Bezdez mountains. Twenty years before the action occurs the poor peasant Kalina (baritone) was in love with Roza Malinska (contralto), sister of the town councillor Malina (bass), but was rejected by Malina because of his lack of money. Kalina then married a woman of the same socio-economic status as himself who gave him a son and has since died. He then built his house across from where Malina lives and pretends to be wealthier than he actually is. Roza has never married and lives with her brother, although she is half-heartedly pursued by an old army veteran named Bonifac (bass), who knows that Kalina is still in love with her even if Roza denies this for most of the opera. In order to keep this from just being a tale of old  people who missed out on love (although logically they couldn’t be more than 45 or 50, which I suppose by 19th century life expectancy standards would make them old) there is a secondary love story between Blazenka (soprano) the daughter of Malina and Vit (tenor) the son of Kalina. The title, if it currently makes no sense, is a reference to three different elements of the story: 1) The secret that Kalina is in love with Roza, and she with him 2) The secret that Blazenka and Vit are in love 3) A secret map leading to some sort of buried treasure that a Friar named Barnabas left Kalina with years ago. All three secrets are revealed over the course of the opera.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1 Square of the village of Bjela opposite the houses of Kalina and Malina, a bell-tower centre stage. (45 minutes)

0: The overture * does not feel like the overture to a comic opera in any way, in fact the opening bars (the Secret motif) would indicate either a tragic opera or a dramatic fairy tale. It mostly consists of a potpourri of melodies from later in the opera and although it is never ornery, it is rather colourless if Teutonic, with some of the melodies sounding like deflated Mendelssohn.

11: The typical standard opening chorus made slightly more interesting by the inclusion of a horse trot. Roza comes on with Bonifac and discusses the past: namely that apparently in spite of the fact that he built his house opposite hers, Kalina is not in love with her. She explains that this is because of something a now deceased friar named Barnabas had told her twenty years earlier (Secret motif *).

14: This is followed by a slightly more rousing scene ** in with the two rival councillors (Malina and Kalina) come on an their houses are commented on by the populous, including a architect who offers plans for renovation to Kalina. Blazenka comes on annoyed that the two men are bashing each other (as usual).

21: The scene gets broken up by the arrival of a traveling singer named Skrivanek who eventually goes into a rather shocking romantic (and good) song which unintentionally gives us more plot material **. The main tune is very close to the couplet sung by Triquet in Eugene Onegin, and I can see how it can hammed up, but with the right character tenor it will come off as a poignant moment (there is a good recording of Beno Blachut singing it in the 1970s that is available on YouTube). Roza ends up kicking him around, although her brother agrees with him and there is a slightly dreamy ensemble (with choral backing) before Malina insults Kalina about how he is probably in debt.

26: Another argument ensemble *: Roza goes into more details about Friar Barnabas and her opinion of Kalina. A bagpiper arrives, half the town wants him to play so they can dance, the other half want him out of town, the two men incarnate this conflict, they are about to beat each other up when Blazenka and Vit show up and stop them. The crowd disperses.

33: A brief aria for Vit * (mostly notable for its lush orchestral accompaniment) is followed by a comic confrontation with Kalina and Bonifac (Secret motif shows us here again) in which the three men make an alliance. Bonifac then talks to the architect, and then the women in chorus led by an otherwise unimportant soprano Innkeeper.

40: The love duet ** for Vit and Blazenka. They get interrupted at times by Jirka the bell ringer (an otherwise totally meaningless character), who rings the bell for scenic purposes. Skrivanek comes on so now there are three tenors and a soprano on stage which might seem like heaven but the effect is rather reminiscent of what Verdi will later do in Falstaff. The act just ends here.

ACT 2: Somewhere in the mountains above the village. (43 minutes)

5: A sobering monologue for Kalina as he finds a treasure map claiming to lead to some sort of thing under the mountains. At first rather dull and morose (more so than the declaration of longing would rationally permit), it turns to an andante passage (which is a bit better) and then suddenly revs up for a rousing  Rossini-ish finish (shades of Figaro) which feels like it just comes out of the blue  to save the number *. He falls asleep.

8: The Ghost of Friar Barnabas (who never again appears in the opera) conspires with a chorus of dead monks * to get Kalina to find this treasure he has hidden. Vit is heard in the distance praying to the Virgin Mary, followed by a pretty religious procession traveling through the mountains.

13: For their second duet, Smetana creates a mild version ** of the Liebesnacht (seriously, anyone will figure out that the alternating soprano-tenor vocal lines are obviously copied from Tristan). Each gets a turn at declaring their love for the other in a monologue. Bonifac finds the couple as they embrace, and runs off to tell Malina. The religious procession is heard in the background.

23: A weird confrontation ensemble * in which everyone (including the chorus) points in rage at the two lovers to what can only be called a very obviously Rossinian race patter chorus. Roza tells Blazenka not to trust Vit (or the Kalinas in general), she claims that he might be wanting to marry her just for her money.

30: She changes her mind when Vit defies his father and tells Blazenka that they are going to get married and live in poverty. This prompts a very good ensemble ***, easily the best number in the score. Roza is convinced that Vit, unlike his father, is truly in love with her niece.

34: Roza reflects on what might have been had Kalina spoken up to her father the why Vit just did for Blazenka *. It gets killed by the arrival of Bonifac (who gets the only laugh in the work by falling to the ground and startling Roza). He tries to pressure her into consenting to marry him, but it is obvious that she has no interest in him at all, except maybe to get back at Kalina, but can she really trust Bonifac? Kalina arrives, the two hide, and watch as the man pushes around rocks to find some sort of secret passage leading to an apparent buried treasure so he can make it rich and marry Roza. Smetana goes overboard with the concluding symphony as Roza and Bonifac watch him descend into the tunnel (wherever it may lead).

ACT 3: A room in the house of Malina. (20 minutes)

5: The act opens with a joyful chorus of party guests followed by a song from Blazenka which is half-sad/half-forced-happy-ish. It is overdone by the heavy orchestration which makes it border on a dirge. The adults embark on a patter trio * (Roza defending Kalina, Malina declaring him a debating scoundrel, the architect tell them he is owed 1200 marks).

11: Suddenly, a weird knocking is heard from the oven, and then Vit arrives to tell Blazenka that he is leaving town and this prompts a pretty passage for the tenor * as he tells Malina even a curse from him would receive a blessing. More oven pounding, then silence from everyone, and then Malina orders a song from Skrivanek. The oven gets another pounding, everyone flees except Roza, and Kalina comes out of the oven. He realizes that the treasure Friar Barnabas was leading him to is the love of Roza! Aw.

17: The finale ** Kalina and Roza finally clinch, get discovered by everyone else, and Malina consents to a double wedding. Everyone happy. The end.

COMMENTS:

Tajemstvi has all the signs of being an experimental work, without being all that experimental, at least not in terms of its score. It is easily the most musically boring of all the operas Smetana wrote, although the characters (of which there are perhaps too many) are notably more human than in any of his other operas. Although they are trapped in a ridiculously complicated plot (or is it really?) their emotions are genuinely flesh and blood. What they want is more domestic than the mythic pageantry of Libuse, the high gothic romanticism of Dalibor, or the romantic silliness of The Bartered Bride or The Two Widows. Only in The Kiss are Smetana characters as believably human, if then still rather romantic theatrical props. However, the fact remains that the score itself, in spite of its libretto, is rather dull. Apart from an aping of the Liebesnacht the best thing in the score is a three and a half minute ensemble con coro in act 2. There are some arias, more so than in other Smetana operas, that are showcased, which are worth looking out for. The primary concern of the libretto is this constant revelation of secrets thing which becomes tired after a while. The usage of the word tajemstvi in the libretto becomes annoying quickly (like by the end of act one). The primary musical theme of the Secret and the overtly dark tone of the music becomes confusing: is it so deathly serious to be ironically funny or did Smetana not know what he was doing (being deaf) and mismatched a dramatic tune with a comic opera on accident? Although not a terrible opera, (and I have heard all of his operas as of writing), this is the dullest and starchiest opera Smetana wrote, which says more about the high quality of his other operas than it does about how bad this one is. A beta.

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