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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Dalibor - opera in three acts (1865-5, rev. 1870)
Dana Burašová (soprano) - Milada
Ivan Kusnjer (baritone) - King Vladislav
Alžběta Poláčková (soprano) - Jitka
Richard Samek (tenor) - Dalibor
Svatopluk Sem (baritone) - Budivoj
Jan Stave (bass) - Beneš
Aleš Voráček (tenor) - Vitek
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiři Bělohlávek
rec. Barbican Concert Hall, London, 2 May 2015
ONYX 4158 [80:23 + 66:12]

There is evidence that Dalibor was the opera that Smetana rated more highly than any of his others, yet you'll struggle to come across it outside of the Czech lands. Its last outing in Britain - that I'm aware of - was an Edinburgh Festival production back in 1998. As with so many other Czech works, however, Jiři Bělohlávek has determined to set that right. This concert performance was recorded live - some applause is retained at the very end of Act 3 - by the BBC at the Barbican earlier in 2015, and it's a welcome addition to the work's limited discography.

True, Dalibor isn't as instantly appealing as Smetana's comedies, most obviously The Bartered Bride, but there is still a huge amount to enjoy. The plot concerns the knight Dalibor, who is sentenced to death by starvation for killing the Burgrave of Ploskovice in revenge for the murder of his friend, the musician Zdeněk. His ardour wins the love of the Burgrave's sister, Milada, who, in an undoubted echo of Fidelio, disguises herself as a boy and enters the gaoler's service in order to rescue Dalibor. However, their escape attempt comes to naught, and Dalibor and Milada both die in the attempt.

It's a patriotic opera rather than a nationalist one - both heroes and villains are Czechs - but there are plenty of opportunities for rousing tunes, such as the mercenaries who sing in the tavern below Prague Castle, and the violin solos, which evoke Dalibor's loss of Zdeněk, are definitely intended to stir the soul. In many ways, it's Smetana's most progressive stage work. For a start, there is no overture: instead Smetana plunges the audience straight into the drama of the opening courtroom scene, and this begins a slow-burn first act that builds steadily in tension rather than climaxing on some jolly tunes. The accusations of Wagnerianism that so damaged Smetana's reputation in the eyes of its first audiences are, surely, exaggerated. There is some motivic re-working as the opera develops, and there are some masterly transitions, such as the transferal from the Lower Quarter of Prague into the house of Beneš the gaoler, but Smetana is a long way from Wagner's developed way of doing things, and his music is always direct and very appealing.

No doubt the reason Bělohlávek decided to mount this work in London was because he had assembled an impressive Czech cast to do the job, and very strong they are. As Dalibor himself, Richard Samek has a golden, heroic tenor that does the job beautifully. He is cut from the same cloth as a German Heldentenor, but is so beautifully smooth that there is never a hint of barking. He is eloquent in the court scene of Act 1, and his visions of Zdeněk's ghost (more hints of Fidelio) are very moving. He is then beautifully poignant during the Act 3 scene when he is brought news of his execution, and his final death-duet with Milada is very good. Conversely, Aleš Voráček, who plays the small role of Vitek, has a very different tenor voice, more earthy and comic, and the contrast is very good. As King Vladislav, however, Ivan Kusnjer is too like a tenor, and doesn't sound quite baritonal enough. It's hard to hear Jan Stave as much more than a trainee Rocco. His Beneš, the gaoler, is bluff and earthy, but without a huge amount of charm. Svatopluk Sem, on the other hand, sings Budivoj like a proper lyric baritone. The women are very fine, too. Dana Burašová sings Milada with strength, nobility and pathos: you can imagine her as Beethoven's Leonore. Her love duet with Dalibor in the prison, the climax of the work, grows in ecstasy into a tremendous climax, and her death scene is very strong. Alžběta Poláčková is a light, young-sounding Jitka, who engages well with the drama and has a brighter voice to distinguish her from Burašová.

The orchestra play this unfamiliar music with great skill, and the BBC Singers throw themselves into the work, both in spirit and in pronunciation. However, there are alternative Dalibors out there, if you're prepared to look for them. Most of them are recorded by Supraphon, the formerly state owned Czech recording company, and surely the greatest ever achievement of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. I have one that was recorded in the Rudolfinum in 1995, with the chorus and orchestra of the Prague National Theatre, and it's pretty special, led by Eva Urbanová as Milada. It's hard to find, but it's worth the search.

Incidentally, Onyx provide the libretto online, not in the CD case, but the Czech and English texts aren't given in parallel and, irritatingly, you'll have to do a lot of chopping and changing if you want to follow both text together.

Simon Thompson


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