> Smetana Libuse [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)

Gabriela Benackov-Capov  (soprano) Libušse
Vaclav Zitek (baritone) Premysl
Antonín Svorc (bass) Chrudos
Leo Marian Vodicka (tenor) Stahlav
Karel Prusa (bass) Lutobor
Rene Tucek (baritone) Radovan
Eva Depoltova (soprano) Krasava
Vera Soukupova  (contralto) Radmila
Chorus of harvesters, elders, chieftains and noblemen; maidens at Libuše's court; Premysl's retinue; the people
Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre, Prague
Zdenek Kosler
Rec 18 November 1983, National Theatre, Prague
SUPRAPHON 11 1276-2 633 [3CDs: 166.17]


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'Libuše is not an opera of the old type, but a festive tableau, a form of musical and dramatic sustenance. I desire it to be used only for festivals which affect the whole Czech nation.' Smetana's view of his Libuše was unequivocal, and shows that the whole conception related to the occasion of its first performance: the inauguration of the National Theatre in 1881. How fitting then that this performance should have been recorded live in November 1983 on the theatre's reopening after a major refurbishment.

There has been another recording subsequently, again by National Theatre forces but with a different cast, under baton of Oliver Dohnanyi (Supraphon SU 3200-2). This was also recorded live, in May 1995, at a performance dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. As ever when comparing performances and recordings of major works, each version has aspects to commend it.

To get back to basics: Dohnanyi's tempi are quicker, and he takes 150 minutes to Kosler's 166. This is particularly important because it means two CDs instead of three. The recording sessions were also more flexible than the straight-through live performance by Kosler, and the stage noises are not present. On the other hand, the earlier version has the more atmospheric sound and also the stronger cast, though special praise is due to Eva Urbanova in the title role of the Dohnanyi version. Like Gabriela Benackova-Capov  for Kosler, she is captured on splendid form.

The plot is relatively static, and based upon the legendary events which led to the founding of the first Bohemian dynasty. Libuše is the Queen of Bohemia, and when there is a dispute over the line of inheritance, she recommends that the people should decide. This effects a reconciliation to the delight of all, and in the final scene she prophesies the glory and eternal life of the Czech nation.

No wonder this opera is never performed on the international circuit. But the music is another matter, as the stirring opening scene shows, replete with magnificent fanfares (TRY CD1 1: 0.12). The score is subtle too, with thematic identification for the main characters, which allows the personalities of the drama to develop. There are some fine, noble tunes, to be sure, in particular those for the leading protagonists, Libuše herself and Premysl. A fine moment comes towards the end when they make their entrance together, and their two themes are magnificently combined (CD3 5: 0.00; but be warned, there is discrepancy between the booklet and CD3 as far as cue points are concerned).

Kosler knows and loves the music, and makes the most of its monumental style. His relatively slower tempi bring forth the grandeur and seriousness of the conception, and the ceremonial atmosphere is well captured by both the recording and the performance (Try the closing scene of Act 2 CD2 5: 0.00). The cast is splendid, reflecting that the extraordinary musical traditions of the Czech's (Europe's most musical nation?) are alive and well. The whole performance captures the sense of occasion which the reopening of the theatre must have been, and which links so closely to Smetana's original conception. True, the audience contributions are too frequent, in the form of both coughing and applause, and the stage noises are sometimes an irritation. But for the domestic listener too this opera is an occasional work, and the atmosphere of occasion is worth having preserved. Both recorded versions of the work will give pleasure, and while this reissue of the Kosler performance is by no means perfect, it does reach to the heart of the matter. Smetana emerges as the great opera composer he undoubtedly was.

Terry Barfoot


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