Bedrich Smetana: Tchertova Stjena/The Devils Wall (1882)

Romantic-Comic Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.

Possible one of my longest reviews: 3221 words. Considering that my review of Rienzi is only 450 words longer (but the opera is twice as long) I apparently had a lot to say about this one!

The third and final collaboration between Smetana and Krašnohorska had a very difficult gestation to say the least. Originally designed by its librettist to be a serious and symbolic work representing the cosmic conflict between the Church and Satan, the demands of the composer for a comic work caused the scenario to become more and more complex, with multiple layers of characters who have little to any discernible relationship to each other at first glance. Add to this that Smetana decided to change his approach to dealing with his baritone lead (the Lord Vuk Vitkovic) and his relationship with his ward and later second wife Hedvike (both are historical figures), and subsequently deleted 500 verses of the libretto without the consent of Krašnohorska (with whom he had cut off contact for a year and a half while composing the opera), the premiere was a mild disaster because few could make anything of what was happening on stage. Krašnohorska ended up defending Smetana, even taking blame for changes to the libretto that she didn’t approve of.

This review took me a while, not just in that this was my second attempt at it but also how long it took me to get through the opera. I was positively disposed to the work (I like it more than The Secret), but I had to re-listen to it several times (the first half-hour I went over four times!).  Each time I listened to it I felt like I picked up something new about it, like there was a coded message or something in it. I would hear it again and some element of the orchestration would come out that I hadn’t noticed before. I have never felt with any other opera that although it might seem like a mess, I had something amazing in front of me. The recording is the 1960 Supraphon release with Ivo Zidek as Jarek.

SETTING: Southern Bohemia, 13th century. The plot is admittedly a piece of work. There are surprisingly few characters, eight actually. The main character is Lord Vuk Vitkovic, master of Southern Bohemia (baritone) who has been a widower for a very long time. His steward Michalek (tenor) wants to marry his daughter Katushka (soprano) off to the lord, but she is the lover of the knight Jarek (tenor), who has made a vow to not marry until Vitkovic does. Meanwhile, the abbot Benes (bass) wants Vitkovic to become a monk and leave his monastery with a large endowment grant. The problem for Benes is that a demon named Rarach (bass) has taken his form as a disguise to cause havoc on earth just at this same time. The romantic situation seems to be solved with the arrival of Hedvika (soprano), daughter of an old sweetheart of Vitkovic who has recently died and left the girl in his charge. Hedvika looks exactly like her mother, and this interests Vitkovic. Benes sees the girl as a threat, and gets Vitkovic to make an announcement that he will be going to the monastery, but also that he will marry any single girl who goes there and convinces him that she loves him (half the female population of the town then attempts to climb the mountain to the monastery, but are stopped by the menfolk). Rarach, who for some reason has taken a vested interest in keeping Jarek from marrying Katushka, has conspired with Michalik (who nevertheless does not know that Rarach is a demon) decides to dam the Vltava river (this is the Devils Wall of the title), which soon threatens to flood the monastery. Hedvika and Jarek climb the dam to warn the villagers and the monastery and in so doing she wins the heart of Vitkovic, Jarek gets to marry Katushka, and Rarach is defeated by Benes when he turns good and gives up the money, so the monastery is saved. There is also a trouser role, Zavis (contralto) the nephew of Vitkovic who gets involved in exposing the romantic entanglements of the plot without actually being involved in them himself.

Because the plot is so intertwined, there are at least three separate stories going on at once, this review will be very close to the synopsis for the opera on Wikipedia.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A wooded landscape near the castle of Vuk Vitkovic, southern Bohemia. (54 minutes)

0: An interesting prelude * contrasting whirlwind fierceness (Devil theme, far more interesting than that theme for The Secret) with lyricism (a quotation from Libuse?) and placidity led by the clarinets which seems to represent the monk Benes. The next theme is the Vitkovic theme (jubilation, it returns whenever he is on stage, or is mentioned, and is the closing march tune at the end of the opera), followed by agitation (Hedviha). Most of this music is repeated in variously shuffled form over the next ten minutes of the opera.

3: A duet between Michalek and the knight Jarek ** sets up the basic premise of the opera: the search for a bride for their master, the widower Lord Vuk Vitkovic. Jarek decides that until his lord marries, he will remain single (the demon Rarach laughs, he is disguised as a monk and only the hermit Benes is able to recognize him). The devil and the monk argue with each other for a while.

10: The maiden Katushka, the daughter of Michalek and lover of Jarek, arrives and embarks on a happy little bel-canto-ish cavatina *. A charming little piece.

13: A cute little chorus of girl farmers going to work greets her *. It consists of at least three distinct movements even though at this point, it should be obvious that Smetana composed the entire opera in brief fits because his attention space was reduced at the 1880s.

16: The love duet: Katushka-Jarek **. He never gets around to telling him about his promise not to marry until Vitkovic does. The devil reminds him of his vow.

24, 31, 36: The villagers give a big hello to Lord Vitkovic ** who arrives with his nephew Zavish (also an historical figure). Vitkovic embarks on conversations with Michalek and Jarek: Michalek wants to marry his daughter Katushka off to the Lord, Jarek is obviously horrified by this as is Katushka who reveals her relationship with the knight to Zavish who promises to help her, and Benes (an advisor to Vitkovic) wants the Lord to become a monk and give a massive endowment to the local Vyšši Brod monastery, where Benes hopes to become abbot. Michalek gets a flighty little arioso in which he tries to sell his daughter to Vitkovic. There is a surprisingly lyrical ensemble here * as we get everyones reaction/feelings on what is happening which also ends up in a patter movement (which would be a great bit if Smetana had developed it beyond ten seconds). Finally another good tune from Jarek * as he starts to regret the vow he made and Michalek reveals the vow to Vitkovic.

39: An interestingly bizarre orchestral passage ** precedes a conversation between between Vitkovic and Rarach (as Benes) discussing the appointment of the new abbot at Vyšši Brod monastery with Rarach extracting a promise from Vitkovic to come to a decision. There is what seems to be half of a line from the lullaby in The Kiss as Zavis explains the situation with Katushka and Jarek. Vitkovic confronts Katushka who reveals her love for Jarek, thus she can’t marry him (but she also can’t marry Jarek because of the vow). A messenger arrives with news that the daughter of an old flame from his past is to be given sanctuary with Vitkovic: Zavis is ordered to fetch the girl.

46, 52: Viktovic reflects on his lost love in a beauty four minute long aria with a gorgeous string accompaniment *** pregnant with romantic longing and loss. Zavis goes to collect Hedvika, and the act ends with Benes attempting to confront Rarach as Viktovic goes off with the demon who laughs at the monk ** (notice at 52:32 the strings resemble the entrance of Vendulka before Lukas in The Kiss).

ACT 2: (44 minutes)

Scene 1: The hut of a shepherd.

3, 9: After a brief orchestral introduction we come upon Jarek in the hut being entertained by an old shepherd (who is really Rarach in disguise). He is on his way to the monastery to fast and pray as part of a pilgrimage to take his mind off of Katushka, but his desire overwhelms him in a series of arias *. The first is waking, the second is a dream fantasy that Rarach inflicts upon him **. The Vitkovic theme comes on jubilantly and the scene transitions.

Scene 2: Grand Hall of the castle.

12: Michalek frets about his missed opportunity to become father-in-law to Vitkovic *. Rarach returns as Benes and both Katushka and Michalek beg him to arrange so that they can get the wedding they want (Katushka to Jarek, Michalek Katushka to Vitkovic).

18: Jarek is transported by the demonic power of Rarach to Katushka and he falls into the arms of his beloved Katushka to a quiet arioso *, but Rarach quickly reminds him of the vow.

20: Jak siré ptáce The arrival of Hedvika starts with the return of Zavis who goes into a beautiful descriptive aria about the trip and his impression of her **.

25: Tak blaze pak The presence of the girl, and her resemblance to her mother, prompts Vitkovic to remember his youth and a brief patter ensemble ensues *.

27: Hedvika comes on to a somewhat Lohengrin-ish choral big hello followed by a gentle arrival monologue *. This sequence has a hauntingly classical atmosphere to it.

30, 35: Vitkovic is immediately taken with the girl and they embark on an interesting duet ** which gets interrupted by the chorus (it ends on a Verdian theme from a high solo violin). Benes and Rarack return and remind him of the various vows (his and Jarek) prompting yet another classical sounding number, a fugal trio *. He is destined for the monastery, so Jarek can never marry. The court finally comes on in a very brief chorus.

40: The act finale *** starts off with Vitkovic announcing that he will be leaving for the monastery. It builds up to a climactic ensemble (the first in the entire opera), no one agrees with his choice apart from Benes (who wants the money) and Rarack (who just wants everyone to be miserable), and he softens his announcement: if any girl comes to the monastery that night and proves her love for him, he will marry that girl.

ACT 3: The shore of the Vltava below the Vyšši Brod monastery. (40 minutes)

6: The act starts off with what seems like a dreary prelude (Benes/monk theme this time in middle strings) but quickly we see Vitkovic, Zavis, and Michalek on their way to the monastery. The orchestra pushes around a slightly random parade of leitmotifs from earlier (some slow, some holy, some more blunt, some resembling dance tunes) and the overall effect is a bit boring. Jarek and Katushka arrives with Hedvika, who realizes that she has been brought in order that she might marry Vitkovic and thus free the two lovers to wed. The lord addresses her, but he does not allow himself to express his desire in a brief quartet * which in spite of its ninety-seconds is easily in two movements.

19: Zevis is certain his uncle loves Hedvika and tries to get into the monastery to win him over but Michalek attacks him and only Benes is able to intervene. Benes gets Michalek to confess that the demon is disguised as a shepherd and Benes orders him to send Hedvika to Vitkovic so the wedding can take place and the money forfeited. Rarach arrives as a shepherd with a flock of sheep singing a strange little song and Benes and he have a brief standoff on the footbridge of the monastery, Rarach vowing revenge on the now no longer miserly Benes. Eventually you just know that thinks have to improve at some point and slowly they do first with two choruses *, the first of peasant girls, shows up, all vying to marry Vitkovic. Their boyfriends show up and stop the girls in a mildly apocalyptic sequence.

24: Finally something rather awesome happens *** as thunder, lightening, a torrent of rain, the peasants run away and Rarach calls upon the forces of darkness! The music goes a bit bizarre at this point with inflation, deflation, some chromaticism as the demons and monsters dance about to an infernally polka before Rarach reigns them in and orders the construction of a dam in order to flood the Vltava and submerge the monastery.

30: Hedvika and Zavis come on and they see the imminent danger about to impact the monastery so Hedvika decides to warn Vitkovic and climb up the wall to the monastery. With this decision, she realizes her love for him and says a quick prayer **. Jarek comes on and tries to dissuade her, saying it is too dangerous for her and that he should make the risk, but they compromise and go up together as Katushka prays for their safety on the river bank. They climb the wall and are eventually met by Benes who curses Rarach, the storm ends and the wall collapses. Vitkovic comes out of the monastery and recognizes Hedvika.

36: The finale *** starts with a gloriously placid chorus and duet for Katushka and Jarek as they rejoice that the vow has been lifted and Vitkovic will marry Hedvika. Zavis returns with envoys of King Ottakar II telling of the appointment of his uncle as governor of Austria, Styria, and Carinthia. Vitkovic accepts the position, but Hedvika tells him that she does not want to travel with him as his adopted daughter so Benes marries them and everyone rejoices.

COMMENTS:

I know this might sound odd, but I really feel that repeated listening is rewarding with this opera. It isn’t great, and the plot and much of the music (especially in the third act) is ridiculous, but there is just something about it that endears it to me. As in Tajemstvi there is no real innovation on technique from The Kiss (if anything both scores are reactionary, and worse yet by the time he wrote Wall Smetana was unable to work for more than short periods of time, so the music tends to show signs of stop-go gearing changes, sometimes even within numbers), but there is a whimsy here that is completely lacking in the opera immediately previous, and that makes it a bit more entertaining. The great flowing melodies are still there and they get repeated a lot, just for not so large a helping as in the earlier operas.  By the third act, however, one can easily tell that much of the music in the first half of the act was written essentially on autopilot, and Smetana seems to turn, on accident, towards the more low-temperature boring moments of Wagnerian music drama. There are structural weaknesses mostly attributable to the loss of focus on the part of Smetana. It is hard to think what another opera of his might have been like had he not died less than two years after this. It is rather probably that a completed Viola postdating this would have proven disastrous. The numbers are generally brief, or consist of short movements that together make up a number. There are a ton of great musical ideas in this opera, but few of them last more than a few seconds, so we get Falstaff-like brief melodies which intrigue and beguile but which rarely last long enough to go anywhere even if for a split second they provide such satisfaction. There are some leitmotifs, and these get repeated a lot and sometimes even modified (like the theme of the act one aria for Katushka which returns in a different key when she arrives in act two) Although there are some great moments in the score, and a few are rather spectacular to me, the Smetana of The Kiss or even The Secret (much less the earlier operas) no longer exists.

The plot is complicated, even a bit cluttered, although this is actually the fault of Smetana as he cut 500 lines from the original libretto and I won’t blame Krašnohoska for this since she was essentially placating a deaf old man who was slowly losing his mind. The demands of the composer that his librettist give him yet another comic opera gave birth to a final product that is wanting for although the plot is not tragic (no one dies and everything ends happily) the work borders more on moral pseudo-medieval fantasy than comedy even in its Meistersinger sense. Some of the characters are endearing, the two women (the late arriving Hedvika in particular), Jarek (in spite of the foolishness of his vow, it along with his wall climb proves his loyalty to Vuk), Vitkovic himself especially is an interesting character made more effective by the last great musical creation Smetana wrote. The whole good vs. evil scenario doesn’t work very well and if the basses singing Rarach and Benes don’t look the same that whole element will not come off (it didn’t at the premier!). It would have been more interesting if Rarach possessed Benes rather than acted as a double, although this might have been more confusing. Why exactly there is this whole shepherd disguise scenario for Rarach is rather confusing. Whereas Secret had darker and sometimes dull music, the plot of Devils Wall is the darker element, even though the music is very melodious and mostly gentle (and unnervingly directly quotes or paraphrases of other earlier Smetana operas at times, giving the impression that the composer was trying to create a compendium with this work much like Verdi did with Falstaff or Wagner with Parsifal), and this can be a little unsettling, just as much as the bass coloratura laughter from Rarach.

As in the other two Krašnohorska librettos, the theme of lost love dominates, but here seems as if Smetana seems to have really taken the concept to heart and expanded upon the dramatic potentials found in the character of Vitkovic, his mourning of his lost relationship with his deceased first wife, and the awakening of his relationship with his second wife. This is different from both The Kiss and The Secret because a) it involves two distinct relationships having only the male member in common, b) one of the relationships is permanently over because someone is death, and c) the second relationship doesn’t even start until act 2 of the opera. In the previous operas, the partners are treated more as equals, whereas here the dramatic emphasis is solidly on Vitkovic, although Hedvika becomes something of a feminist heroine in her own right climbing the Great Wall of Vltava to warn the man she loves. Vitkovic gets the best elements out of Smetana, who provides the character with a great instrumental treatment. Smetana obviously related to this older male character and he lack of love in his life, even if the finished product is muddled if oddly inspired to say the least. I don’t know, it is one of those operas that is obviously flawed, but I find it loveable anyways.

B+/A-.

4 thoughts on “Bedrich Smetana: Tchertova Stjena/The Devils Wall (1882)

  1. Now that you’ve finished with Smetana I thought I’d share some other Czech operas you might be interested in:
    Fibich – The Tempest(Boure) op. 40
    Foerster – Eva
    Novak – The Lantern(Lucerna)
    Weinberger – Svanda dudak (Svanda the Bagpiper)
    Martinu – Juiletta, The Greek Passion

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    1. Wow, I knew about the Fibich (is there a recording of Boure anywhere?) and Svanda the Bagpiper and the Martinu. Did not know about the Foerster or Novak (but I know the composers). Do you have any source recordings you would like me to review specifically? Also, what did you think of Tchertova Stjena?

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  2. Yes, there’s a live performance of Boure(don’t confuse it with his tone poem op.46, which he drew themes on like with Rimsky and Sadko, so maybe listen to the tone poem first) on youtube. It says only up to Act 2 but I’ve listened to it and contains Act 3(searching around the net there is a hard to find mono recording with Beno Blachut at at around 125 minutes) .

    Excellent review/ analysis as always Phil but I’m afraid like I said before I think the Devils Wall is not good at all. It shows his creative powers sadly greatly diminished like Schumann and his last works.

    Foerster: there seems to be two recordings of EVA from Naxos and Supraphon. Novak is very hard to find not even on youtube. BTW The Greek Passion is my favourite of the bunch – great work that.

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  3. Maybe I was wrong. Just gave this a re-listen after many many years and found it more enjoyable than I remember. Vok is a nicely drawn character that Smetana must have related with. Nicely paced too.

    Ah, czech opera though you got to love it. CzechOperaIsLife hashtag

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