Zdenek Fibich: Helga from Pad Arkuna/The Fall of Arkuna (1900) Part 1

Opera in a prologue and three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 44 minutes.

This review is dedicated to Kevin, who made this recording of a 2014 performance at the Národní divadlo in Prague available to me from UnsungComposers drop box.

Pád Arkuna is possibly the rarest opera to date on this blog. In a way it is actually two operas: the prologue is entitled Helga while the three acts are named after Dargun the high priest and warrior of the Slavic deity Svantovít. The plot mostly concerns an historical battle between Pagan Slavs and invading Christian German forces so I have to put on my Historian Phil cap briefly: The opera is set on the now German island of Rügen on the Baltic Sea, which in the twelfth century was contested land between the Danes and a Pagan West Slavic people known as the Rani or Rujani who practiced a polytheistic religion based on the worship of tall wooden statues and ritual meals in sacred groves (their chief god was Svantovít), and not even an island (a storm surge in 1304 flooded the peninsula connecting it to mainland Europe). In 1168 the Rujani were defeated and forcibly Christianized by the Danish king Valdemar I. The opera relates the events leading up to the Pagan last stand at their citadel of Arkuna, near the northernmost tip of the island.

The opera is rare because it has never actually had a commercially released recording; it  is also rarely performed, and then only in the Czech Republic. It was produced by the National Theatre of Prague twice after the 1900 premiere in 1902 and 1925, as well as twice in the Moravian city of Ostrava in 1922 and 1936, but otherwise has had only two other productions: an abridged concert version in 1989 and the new mounting in 2014 both at the National Theatre which is the recording used in this review. Both sections have been recorded in studio separately (Helga complete, selections of Dargun) in 1952 and 1960 respectively. The one exception to this neglect is the 12 minute long overture to the opera, which is regularly performed in orchestra concerts in the Czech Republic.

The music is supposedly dark and grim, with Dargun especially being of a dramatic intensity that is difficult to pull off effectively, hence the rarity of its performance. Fibich did not sympathize with his Christian characters at all, (according to his mistress and librettist Anezka Schulzova, the composer was himself a pantheist, closer in belief to Slavic Paganism than to Christianity). Fibich died three weeks before the first performance in November, 1900, (although he had attended multiple rehearsals) so the work was never able to be revised to make it more stage-effective.

SETTING: Rügen, 1148 and 1168. This is hard because both sections have complex storylines even though the prologue is only around forty minutes long. The plot isn’t so much complex or stupid as it is really wordy.

Helga is a more intimate work with only four soloists and no chorus relating the story of Helga (soprano) the daughter of a Danish nobleman named Gunar (bass) and fiancee of Absalon (baritone) a Danish soldier who is just now returning from surprising a rebellion in Denmark. In his absence, Helga has fallen in love with and been impregnated by the Slavic warrior Dargun (bass). When Absalon returns and learns of Helga betraying him he almost kills her but realizes that doing so would not end his love for her. Meanwhile Dargun refuses to marry Helga because he believes that he is being called by the Slavic deity Svantovít to become High Priest of His (?) cultus. Gunar attacks him for dishonouring his daughter but the older man is mortally wounded unintentionally by Dargun who leaves. Gunar entrusts Helga to Absalon as he dies.

That was 143 words, just about the prologue!

Dargun is set twenty years later, during which time Helga has died giving birth to a daughter named Margit (soprano, in the original production performed by the same soloist) and Absalon (who has remainder the guardian of the girl) has become a bishop and chancellor of the King of Denmark.  Meanwhile Dargun is now the pagan High Priest, but on Rügen the situation is C.R.A.Z.Y. The ruling prince Tetislav (does not appear) has two nephews Jaromer and Rutan (both tenors). Rutan has a wife named Radana who is actually in love with her brother-in-law and plots to kill her own husband in order to marry Jaromer. Meanwhile, Jaromer encounters the shipwrecked Absalon and Margit and falls in love with the girl and she with him, but Absalon refuses his hospitality in a move to convert him to Christianity. Radana confesses her love to Jaromer but is rebuffed and then threatens to tell her husband that his own brother has betrayed him. Dargun expels Jaromer from the pagan coven when he refuses to attack the Danes anymore and Jaromer is taken in by Absalon, who plans to use him to convert the island to Christianity. (That is just act one!) The three hide in a cave on a coast of beech trees and the relationship between Jaromer and Margit blossoms but Absalon has an encounter with Dargun in which the latter attempts to hack a crucifix to pieces. When Dargun sees Margit he thinks she is the ghost of her mother and flees. Absalon tells Margit he has no idea why the pagan priest knew the name of her mother (a lie of course). Rutan, meanwhile, has discovered evidence of Radana being unfaithful and he drags her to the cave to kill her, however she pretends to seduce him and stabs him to death, then waits of Jaromer to return. When Margit encounters Radana at the cave and the latter discovers that the former is her rival, she accuses her of killing Rutan (what is the motive?) and has the innocent girl dragged off to Arkuna to face trial for the murder. Radana then reveals what she has done to Jaromer and attempts to seduce him, but when she realizes that he can never love her, she decides to confess and liberate Margit. The Danish army arrives and Jaromer and Absalon vow to destroy Arkuna and save Margit. (That is act two). In the temple of Svantovit Radana confesses her mariticide to Dargun and she chooses to executed by being burned on the funeral pyre of her husband.  Dargun has Margit brought before him and orders her to tell him who she is. From the details the girl provides he realizes that she is his daughter by Helga and in an act unapproved by his god, he embraces his daughter. She warns him of the coming Danish onslaught and to convert to Christianity, but he refuses. Meanwhile, the Danes have already set fire to the temple, which collapses just as a passed out Margit alone is rescued by Absalon. The surviving Rugens submit to baptism, Jaromer and Margit are set up as the Danish Vice-Royalty, and the opera ends with the Christian army singing a Te Deum. (That was 534 words).

So, what be the music like?

NOTE: For this review I used the script cues from the synopsis on Czech Wikipedia, which mostly cover arias and duets, so most of the ensemble numbers will not have a cue line even if I give it a star-rating and timer notation.

LOOK OUT FOR:

HELGA: (43 minutes)

PROLOGUE: The estate of the Danish nobleman Gunar.

3: Ó slyš, jak moře kvílí The gentle strains of harp and strings of the prelude flow immediately into an aria ** about the sound of the sea for Helga as she waits for the return of Absalon and is fearful over the neglected Dargun has paid her over the last few days.

7: Srdce mé, teď hlucho buď Dargun comes on and reveals what is on his mind **: he believes that his deity, Svantovit, is calling him to a life of celibacy as his high priest. Helga is horrified. (Notice a dark five note theme that repeats itself frequently).

15: Na vlnách bouřných v seči krvavé Absalon returns from battle praising God for victory **, but is greeted only by Gunar as Helga is preoccupied with her own situation (being pregnant for instance). Absalon becomes suspicious.

25: Já klidně zbrani hleděla jsem vstříc Helga reveals all to the two men * (a weird oboe comes in).

29: Když pohřbíváme druha milého Absalon is about to strike Helga, but realizes that killing her would not end his love for her ***. The two men try to persuade Dargun to marry Helga.

37: Tam v dáli nad hladinou modravou Dargun reveals ** that he will not marry Helga and will become a priest of Svantovid which disgusts the others. Helga realizes her betrayal and curses his god. Gunar challenges Dargun, but although the younger man does not want to fight him, he does eventually stab him. Gunar curses Dargun and entrusts Helga to Absalon (who sings a hymn which ends the scene *) as he dies. The theme from the beginning of the opera returns before a fade out.

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