Zdenek Fibich: Sarka (1897)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

With a libretto written by the mistress of the composer, this can be termed a sexy opera. The title character, a Czech warrior maiden, falls destructively in love with her victim, the male warrior Ctirad, to the point of causing the deaths of her sisters much less to her own suicide. It is perhaps a study in the development of female heterosexuality, and the second act features a massive, erotic love duet. Written in reaction to accusations that the composer was Wagnerian, the sound world of the opera falls somewhere between Wagner (Fibich uses leitmotifs) and more domestic influences (such as Smetana, and especially Dvorak). The present review is of the 1950 studio recording with Beno Blachut as Ctirad and Maria Podvalova in the title role.

SETTING: Bohemia, sometime in the first millennium of the Common Era. Somewhat different from the opera by Janacek, here Sarka (soprano) falls in love with Ctirad (tenor) and leads the army of Premysl (baritone) to Castle Devin (the female army fortress) to rescue him after Ctirad is captured by the female army as a result of his successful seduction by Sarka. She actually succeeds in saving Ctirad, but realizing that by so doing she has caused the deaths of the other women, including their leader Vlasta (mezzo-soprano), commits suicide. Rounding out the cast is the Bohemian High Priest Vitoraz (bass) and six assorted named Maiden Warriors (three sopranos, one mezzo, two contraltos).

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A Sacred Grove near Vysehrad. (48 minutes)

0: The overture **, long, with only one great foreboding theme which is almost immediately introduced (in returns in act three). This gets reshuffled around rather a lot and the rest of the overture (which isn’t much) is rather ordinary tragic opera material, albeit appropriately atmospheric and good in its own sort of way.

10: Stínové vy duší zemřelých Vlasta leads the women in their ceremonial mourning of Queen Libuse *.

17: Zaduněly rány pádné v štít Sarka arrives and goes into her man-hating bit * (little does she know!). In particular she hates the bold warrior Ctirad.

24, 28: Slyšte, věční, prosby hlas/Větve dvě, hle, úzce spolu A sudden choral confrontation as the women are interrupted by the arrival of the male army preparing for a sacrifice to Svarog in honor of Libuse ***. A simple effect (it is merely a switch from female to male voices) but it comes off spectacularly and this is the first time we finally hear male voices in the opera. This is followed by the typical functions (a march as the men arrive for the ritual, the women hide, Premysl addresses the troops with remembrances of Libuse ** like the widower Amfortas of the piece that he is), all very effective.

34: Bože věčný, vládce světla, tmy The ritual is performed * by Vitoraz with the men responding. Something in the bass vocal line comes off as close to the prelude to Khovanshchina but otherwise this is the only game in town until Sarka interrupts everything. She is captured by Premysl demands that there be no bloodshed. Ctirad comments that this interruption proves the irresponsibility of women in comparison to the rational men.

40: Jako blahý ohlas doby zašlé Vlasta realizes the need for damage control **, but also that this is a chance for her to peacefully confront the prince, reminding that in the days of Libuse (the woman they are all mourning) women had equal rights to men in the government, military, justice, and religion. Premysl refuses, saying that women deserve only love and respect from men, but not political equality. He does order that Sarka be freed, as a gesture of good will, but the maiden takes this as a slight and challenges any one man to a duel against her. Ctirad laughs at her, she flings a weapon at him, but Vlasta come between them, demanding that any revenge be on the field of battle.

ACT 2: A dense forest clearing. (43 minutes)

1: Hejá! Hejá! Slavic Valkyries return from battle**: an entire family of men has been slaughtered, but many of the maidens have also died, an entire village of men slaughtered with their leader decapitated, and a wedding (that of a friend of Ctirad named Sobek) has ended in all the men being taken prisoner (alive) by the bride and her maidens at Devin Castle.

12: Krásná! Krásná jsi! Sarka learns that Ctirad is coming to avenge and rescue his friend, and sees her chance for revenge. She tells Vlasta that she will be tied to a tree and left for Ctirad to find, she will then seduce him and the maidens will be able to kill him. Vlasta warns against using trickery, and Sarka is herself uncertain that she will be successful and even that she is beautiful enough to succeed. She has to be convinced of this by the other maidens in a grand choral number ***.

18: Vše ticho kolem Sarka, tied up the tree, thinks about her childhood and her youthful hopes for love ***.

21: Měsíc bílý v doubravinu Ctirad is heard in the distance singing a happy little song ***. Notice the effect Fibich has of stopping the female vocal line with a male one in the background. He comes upon her and she claims that the women had tied her up for pleading mercy on captives. He unties her from the tree, and at first she expects him to kill her…but he doesn’t.

29: Ano, nenáviděl jsem He admits that he once hated her, but his hatred has turned to a chivralic love **.

30: Ach, ty jsi slunce mé The love duet ***, they embrace each other. She eventually admits the truth about the trap to him, but he blows his own hunting horn, alerting the warrior maidens. Sarka, seeking to save his life, demands that he be made her personal prisoner, under her protection. He is taken to Devin.

ACT 3: A stony valley near Devin Castle. (38 minutes)

0: The rather long, furious entr’acte **, full of struggle and passion, fury and romance. Eventually we come upon Premysl and his men being led by Sarka (who seeks only to save Ctirad). The men, at first, do not believe her, and think it is just a trap to get them all killed.

7: Slyš, věčná obloho Sarka presents the sword of Ctirad to the men and stabs herself in the shoulder with it to prove that she seeks only to save him **. Premysl is finally convinced.

14: The theme from the overture returns in an extreme bout from the orchestra as Ctirad is brought on by Vlasta and the women for torture and execution **. Vlasta goes into the preliminaries: Ctirad is to be tortured and then, eventually, executed in a sacrifice to the goddess Morana.

17: Jen sporých chvílí zákmit prchavý Ctirad is prepared for the ritual torture, which turns into a beautiful aria con coro for the tenor backed by the female chorus as they prepare him for sacrifice ***. Sarka stops them (she having a bad habit of disrupting religious rituals) and demands that they hand Ctirad over to her for a fate worse than death.

25: Viz, tak slabá jsem, že v prosbě ruce spínám Sarka pleads **, but Vlasta and the other maidens refuse her request. Sarka then gives the signal to Premysl to attack and the maidens are pushed towards Devin by the men. Orchestral fury ensues as the violence occurs off-stage.

29: The play out ***: the last nine minutes of the score consists of a duet as Sarka and Ctirad are left alone on stage and they watch as the women are slaughtered by the men (Fibich uses a scherzo feature from the flute to depict the women as the fall from the cliffs above). The souls of the women rise, haunting Sarka with vows of revenge for her double betrayal of them, swearing that there will never be peace on earth. Ctirad tries to stop her, vowing his eternal love for her to some rather beautiful tenor vocal lines, but the vengeance of her comrades outweighs his love and she commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff. Ctirad remains alone, the orchestral blaring out the foreboding theme from the overture.

COMMENTS:

Although still Wagnerian, the score mostly consists of a series of arias (sometimes with choral support) and choral numbers. Through-composed, the only real instance of soloist vocal over-lap is the stunning act two love duet. Again, Sarka is one of a long line of strong Czech operatic heroines, and parallels to Vanda and Slavoj in Sarka and Ctirad are probably accurate. The ending is radically changed from the original tale, as Ctirad does not die in this version, instead all of the women do. Ironically, all of the characters are better drawn and more fleshed out than in the Janacek opera, which is closer to the origin source material. The orchestration, even through this 1950 recording, is clear and beautiful. An alpha.

2 thoughts on “Zdenek Fibich: Sarka (1897)

  1. Anežka Schulzová, the librettist, helped Fibich with the orchestration of Sarka. She died tragically 5 years after him by committing suicide – she couldn’t live without him.

    Like

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