Thursday, 30 April 2015

Bedřich Smetana Dalibor - and Mahler

"Dalibor ! Dalibor! " sing the impassioned chorus.   Bedřich Smetana: Dalibor at the Barbican on 2/5 conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek promises to be one of the special events of the year. Dalibor marks the beginnings of Czech identity, as well as of Czech .  Bělohlávek is bringing the pick of singers from the Prague State Opera.  Kenneth Richardson is directing.. Bělohlávek and Richardson created magic with Dvořák's The Jacobin, Janáček: The Excursions of Mr Brouček, Smetana's Bartered Bride and much else.

While The Bartered Bride is a good natured celebration of folk tradition, Dalibor is explicitly political The original Dalibor was a Bohemian knight, who rose up against foreign invasders and was executed in 1498, but became a symbol of resistance. The relevance to Czech lands under Austrian rule is obvious. Smetana took pasrt in the uprisings of 1848 ,though not prominent enough to have been arrested.  Indeed, he addressed the issue of foreign occupation in his first opera, The Brandeburgs in Bohemia (1862).  He had grown up speaking German because his father had become a successful businessman (though illiterate until middle age!), adopting the German language and German culture because Czech was considered lower class. So the libretto for Dalibor was patriotic, though it was originally written in German by Jozef Wenig, then translated into Czech.

The thematic links between Dalibor and Beethoven Fidelio are fairly obvious. Both Dalibor and Florestan are heroes against oppression. Legend has it that .Dalibor was  imprisoned in the Black Tower at Prague Castle (see photo). Like Florestan, Dalibor is a idealized figure, loosely sketched. Brian Large, author of what is still the key Smetana biography, and the founder of modern filming of music) makes a point about the Italianate "Bellini-esque^ music around the character, in contrast to the much more vigorous music around Milada, who sacrifices herself to try and save Dalior. Milada  is a latter-day Leonore0, much strongger and more forceful than the man she loves. Interestingly, Milada, despite her Czech name, would have been one of the oppressors, since Dalibor killed her brother. While Beethoven encases his music with spoken dialogue and philosophy. Smetana, ever a man of the theatre, does straight opera,  As Large noted, the prisoners in Fidelio greet the sun and sing its redemptive power, while the crowds in Dalibor sing "Dalibor!"  Smetana's ending is also more realistic. Dalibor doesn't get saved, Milada dies. Photo above shows Marie Podvalová as  Milada in a 1955 Prague production.

The initial reception of Dalibor was hostile, thanks to a hostile press who didn't like new music. Wagner was the boogey man of new music at the time, so Dalibor was condemned as being "too Wagnerian" . In fact,  the Wagnerian connections aren't that strong, apart from generic heroism and the idea of a sister mourning the loss of her brother. To modern ears, Dalibor sounds like, well, Smetana, because we've heard so much of him since, and of Dvořák.and Janáček.  When Gustav Mahler introduced Dalibor to Vienna in 1892, it was hailed by Wagner's old enemy Eduard Hanslick, no less, as innovative new work.  And so the circle turns.....  ,  Mahler was a boy from small town Iglau, where his father had followed the same profession as Smetana's father had done nearly 100 years before. Unlike Smetana, Mahler made it to the capital of the Hapsburg empire, chosen and protected by the Emperor himself.  Much is made of Mahler's use of Ländler, reflecting the sounds he would have grown up with in a German speaking area in Bohemia. But might he himself , familair with the modern music of his time, have also imbibed of Smetana ?

Original Content: Bedřich Smetana Dalibor - and Mahler

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