Leos Janacek: Sarka (1887)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 4 minutes.

Written in 1887 to a libretto by Julius Zeyer with whom Janacek had not attained permission, and then send to Dvorak (whom Zeyer wanted to set his verses), this first attempt by Janacek to compose an opera had to wait until 1925 to be performed. It is based on a famous chapter in the Maidens War narrative, which is a Czech legend about a bloody war between the sexes. The same scenario (although based on a different source) would be set by Zdenek Fibich a decade later.

SETTING: Bohemia, sometime after the death of Libuse. Yes, the Smetana opera ignores that the tale of Libuse has a sad after-myth. During her reign, women became the privileged members of society and so after the death of Libuse, a female army rose up to maintain their position. The main plot of the opera consists of a tragic love story between the fiercest of the female warriors, Sarka (soprano), and Ctirad (tenor), the mascot for the male army led by Premysl (baritone), who guards the tomb of Libuse. In order to trap him, Sarka is tied up to a tree by her women and when Ctirad finds her, he frees her. The problem is that the two fall in love before he is killed by the women and then Sarka commits suicide by immolation at his funeral out of grief for what she has done.


ACT 1: Before the tomb of Libuse. (26 minutes)

0, 4: Jak za hory se slunce chýlí The opera starts with a long prelude ** until we come upon Premysl who tries to rev up the male troops * who are at a low point in their military careers.

6: Kdo šerem lesů přichází? The arrival of Ctirad raises moral among the men ***.

11: Posvátné ticho Ctirad is left alone to guard the tomb **.

14: Bouříme krajem The female warriors come covertly to the tomb of Libuse, but much of the number remains part of the long monologue for Ctirad **.

19: Nuž vzhlédněte, kam sem vás uvedla! Sarka arrives ** with her women but they are eventually intimidated by Ctirad, and, swearing vengeance, flee the scene. Ctirad is left alone.

ACT 2: A forest, large tree. (21 minutes)

0: Proč zachvělo se srdce mé The women embark on a whimsical chorus * in the background as Sarka plots against Ctirad. She has her maidens tie her to a tree with a horn and mead just out of touch.

8: Ó, klame lživý The arrival of Ctirad allows both the plot and the music to go into action with a love duet ** that admittedly could be a bit more passionate (I personally find Sarka rather dull although Ctirad is very good).

19: Bouříme krajem The women are called and Ctirad is eventually killed by Sarka ***.

ACT 3: The funeral of Ctirad. (17 minutes)

0: Another prelude ** (notice the trumpet call). Premysl comes on officiating. The tenor in this act is Lumir, the second of Premysl, who is obviously a tenor because we lost our main one and the vocal distribution would be awkward otherwise. The men mourn Ctirad.

8: Vy divíte se, bohatýrové Sarka arrives full of remorse for killing Ctirad **.

14: Vyšlehni, rudý plameni Janacek is extremely vague about when Sarka actually kills herself but the final chorus with the backing of the baritone and tenor is very effective **.


This is far and away from the mature Janacek style, but it has its merits. The influence of Smetana is obvious, especially in the most ravishing features of the score such as the climatic love duet and, in general, the slow and melodious tenor music for Ctirad, which then gets traded off to Lumir in the third act. The vocal parts are decidedly based on Smetana lyric types, with even the baritone being obviously a lyrical part. As for the title role, am I the only one would would love a contralto or mezzo Sarka? I find that the soprano voice just sounds too oddly youthful for this role of a fierce female warrior, like coming upon an army of eight year olds somewhere in central Africa, dangerous, but at first hard to take seriously. The orchestration is Wagnerian, if smaller in scale, so I guess that would be Smetanian as well. In any case, this is much too small a work to merit a full alpha, but it can be a mini-alpha.

4 responses to “Leos Janacek: Sarka (1887)”

  1. A far cry from the house of the dead!

    Will you listen to Vixen, Makropulous, and Jenufa?


    1. I started work on all three, but my situation right now has halted production on reviews (I have not worked on one since August). I have review posts scheduled until January, hopefully by then I will be stable enough to work on something new.


  2. Please don’t forget about The Excursions of Mr Broucek – a work gaining in popularity and esteem in recent years.


    1. I started Mr. Broucek as well.


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