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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Hubička (The Kiss) (1875/6) [103:27]
Karel Kalaš (bass) - Father Paloucký; Ludmila Černiková (soprano) - Vendulka; Beno Blachut (tenor) - Lukáš; Přemysl Kočí (baritone) - Tomeš; Marta Krásová (contralto) - Martinka; Vladimir Jedenáctík (bass) - Matouš; Štefa Petrová (soprano) - Barče; Karel Hruška (tenor) - A frontier guard;
Prague National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Zdenĕk Chalabala.

rec. Dominova Studio, 30 June, 1-2 July 1952. ADD mono
Includes notes, text and translation
SUPRAPHON SU 3878-2 [58:55 + 44:52]


Smetana's two-act opera The Kiss has retained the affection of its native country, but it remains likely that the only way non-Czech listeners will hear it is on disc. After its first performance, it quickly became the composer's second most popular opera in Prague (the first being Bartered Bride). The booklet to the present release refers to the figure of 180 separate productions in total in the Czech Republic. The piece is based on a short story by Karolina Světlá (1830-1899), a writer who frequently took rustic themes as the basis for her stories. They were, specifically, based on the comings and goings in the Ještěd area. The theme here, a refused kiss, is allegedly true, its source being a local historian; the story was published in the Enlightenment magazine in 1871. The librettist was Eliška Krásnohorská (1847-1926), who herself suggested the subject to Smetana who had just finished Libuše. Although Smetana next turned his attention to The Two Widows, he returned to The Kiss in 1875.

This is not a comic opera – Smetana himself referred to it as a 'simple folk' opera. The setting of a Czech village and the simplicity of the characters obviously struck a chord with him. The premiere, in November 1876 at the Provisional Theatre under Adolf Čech, was a success.

A refused kiss may not seem such a big deal these days, of course, but back in the latter stages of the nineteenth century it was a completely different matter. Lukáš, a young widower, arrives in a village with his brother-in-law Tomeš to negotiate the hand in marriage of Vendulka. He has, prior to this, been forced by his parents to marry another; yet this wife died and he is now free to declare his feelings. Father Paloucký agrees, but is more than aware of the lovers' hard-headedness. Vendulka refuses to give Lukáš a kiss until they are married. Martinka, Vendulka's aunt, tries to persuade her and supports her, while secretly also helping smugglers in the wood. These smugglers, who we meet in Act 2, are headed by Matouš. A scene between Lukáš and Tomeš means Lukáš agrees to go and find Vendulka, but the conversation is overheard by Matouš. Lukáš feels guilt because of his late wife ... and to compound matters there was a child by the relationship, too. In the second part of Act 2 Lukáš has to eat humble pie big style, having to beg forgiveness off first Vendulka's father, then Vendulka herself. She tries to kiss him, but Lukáš insists that first she has to forgive him in front of everybody. Only then can there be a happy ending ... and there is.

Such a sweet and harmless plot is hardly the material of Ring cycles, but it is the generative force in the present instance behind a piece of the utmost charm. The presence of an indigenous cast, conductor and orchestra means that the music's rusticity sounds absolutely convincing and not in the least hackneyed.

Zdeněk Chalabala (1899-1962) had an impeccable pedigree. He studied at the Brno Conservatoire from 1919 to 1926 with František Neumann and Janáček. Thereafter, he was mainly associated with the Prague National Theatre despite a time at Ostrava. His opera recordings include Fibich (Sarka), Foerster (Eva) and Dvořák (Rusalka). That he was a born man of the theatre is immediately evident from the opera's Prelude. The orchestra plays with what I can only describe as an organic rusticity – truly with roots firmly in the Czech soil. The recording is good for its time, although there is some eminently understandable loss of body. Chalabala paces the Prelude perfectly, as he seems to everywhere. Although he is able to convey the opera's light basis to a tee, he is unafraid of bending the tempo when he feels it is right; his feeling for the idiom is beyond criticism.

Voices fare exceptionally well in recorded terms. Marta Krásová's firm contralto is the first voice heard, as Martinka. Her voice is not heavy, though, so her brief ditty, 'S přteli byltĕ dnes zármutek zapít' ('He went with his friends today to drown his sorrows') has all the requisite agility. Karel Kalaš, a well-respected bass who included King Philip (Verdi's Don Carlos) in his repertoire, that takes the role of the father, while Přemysl Kočí as Tomeš sings with great, open-throated gusto. Although this is a high-lying role, apparently Kočí's range was so wide that he elsewhere took on Boris Godunov!

It is not until Scene 4 that the two lovers, Vendulka and Lukáš, get a chance to blossom vocally. And blossom they do. Their voices work together in the freshest of ways, emphasising the open-air, innocent essence of the opera as a while, but the actual duetting is fairly minimal here. We have to wait until Scene 5 before they can stretch their lungs in a tender love duet during which Vendulka vows to take on the child and essentially thanks Lukáš's wife for dying! But when the duet comes, it really comes: this whole exchange, centring around the famous kiss, lasts for nigh on half-an-hour. It makes for delicious listening, though, only ending when Lukáš leaves rather petulantly, having been denied his kiss.

It is worth noting that Chalabala's accompaniments are of the very first rank. He has drilled his orchestra to be responsive to the nth degree.

Each act, conveniently, fits on one CD. Act 2 begins with an Overture (as opposed to the first act‘s Prelude). The title is well chosen, as it is more serious in intent than its predecessor – its purpose is to invoke the thick forest that hides the smugglers, led by Matouš. Vladimir Jedenáctík, a native of Brno, takes the role; Jedenáctík's mother, apparently, was a pupil of Janáček's. His vocal articulation in the opening scene of this act is exemplary as is the evenness of tone over his large range. The chorus's reactions to his lines reveal them to be a particularly well-drilled lot. Lukáš's outburst of grief is potent in his aria, 'Já nešfasník!' ('Woe is me!'). Luckily, Kočí is his vocal equal in the ensuing duet so there is no drop in dramatic tension immediately thereafter.

Probably Chalabala's greatest interpretative achievement is to stop the scene of Martinka and Vendulka in the dark forest degenerating into direst melodrama. Having heard badly performed Czech opera (no names), I can report that one really should hear these scores presented by a master of Chalabala's ilk. The trio of Martinka, Vendulka and Matouš is pure magic. Later in the act, the encounter with the Frontier Guard brings an opportunity to admire the talents of Karel Hruška, a specialist in characterful minor roles; he hams it up wonderfully! The fact is that there is not a single weak link in the casting. This is, as the final pages prove, the work of a true ensemble that includes some marvellous singers.

Pre-Janáček Czech opera outside of Rusalka and Bartered Bride really needs a push. There is so much to enjoy, and this radiant, laughing performance makes the best possible case for the magnificently crafted music of The Kiss. I have not heard Supraphon's later Brno recording of this work, conducted by Vajnař. I would love to, but I somehow cannot imagine it eclipsing this magnificent, star-studded reading.

Colin Clarke


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