ZDENEK FIBICH Hippodamia Trilogy (1889-91) - three melodramas Plays in spoken (not sung) Czech with continuous music 1. The Courtship of Pelops Op. 31 (1889) [114:23] 2. The Atonement of Tantalus Op. 32 (1890) [145:59] 3. Hippodamia’s Death Op. 32 (1891) [144:03] Words by Jaroslav Vrchlicky (1853-1912) All directed by Lubomir Pozivil recorded 1981-84 at Stadion Studio, Brno and Domovina Studio, Prague.SUPRAPHON SU 3037-2 616 (boxed set of all 3 - also available separately as respectively: SU 3031-2 616 Pelops - vary the middle number: 3033 Tantalus 3035 Hippodamia)[114:23] [145:59] [144:03]






Jaroslava Adamova - Hippodamia

Eduard Cupak - Pelops

Rudolf Hrusinsky - King Oenomaus

Martin Ruzek - Tantalus, King of Argos

Josef Vinklar - Myrtilus

This massive six and three quarter hour cycle of ‘shock’ melodramas follows the classical story of Hippodamia. The epic story is presented in the form of a radio play with a constant fabric of music underpinning the words and action.

Each of the three handsomely designed sets of CDs comprises two discs and comes with a full set of notes and a booklet of the complete spoken text in both Czech and English. The notes and separate synopsis are in English, German, French and Czech.

What would Richard Strauss have made of this salty gore-stained story? Desire and revenge, tragedy and passion crash and heave like monstrous waves. In Act 1 of the first of the cycle Hippodamia kisses the severed and impaled head of one of her hapless suitors who failed in the contest for her hand. This is years before Salome.

The balance favours speech at some slight disadvantage to the audibility of the music. The two are woven together but the words are the lead component. In other melodramas or orations more prominence is given to the music. I think particularly of Prokofiev’s Eugene Onegin where the rollingly magical text seems to achieve an equal symphonic balance with the, music. This is best heard in the Melodiya LPs (not yet reissued) rather than the atmospheric English language set produced by Chandos.

Fibich clearly invested much effort in Hippodamia and had written three other melodramas what appear now, from this perspective, to be an apprenticeship for this giant of work.

Grove V speaks of the vast complexity of leitmotivs linked to each of the many characters who populate the triptych and whose bodies lie broken and bleeding throughout the great story. Not to worry; the eloquent pleasures of the music are accessible without having to identify and map out these character signposts.

The cast is consistent across the three dramas and so are orchestra and chorus. The more internationally known Jaroslav Krombholc directs the first drama. Frantisek Jilek conducts the second and third parts.

1. The Courtship of Pelops (4 acts)

Jaroslava Adamova; Eduard Cupak; Rudolf Hrusinsky

Kuhn Mixed Choir/Pavel Kuhn

Brno State PO/Jaroslav Krombholc

Pelops arrives at Pisae a city ruled by King Oenomaus. The king has a daughter, Hippodamia. Suitors are put to the test in a chariot race and if they fail are slaughtered and their dripping heads impaled on stakes on the city walls. Pelops set his heart on Hippodamia and she on him. She fixes the chariot race so that her father loses and is mortally wounded. She wishes to rule with Pelops. Wedded, the two return to Pelops’ home and Hippodamia discovers Pelops has a childless wife who Pelops promises to banish. The couple are followed by Myrtilus the charioteer who had conspired to kill Oenomaus and who loves Hippodamia. When it becomes apparent that Myrtilus is in love with Hippodamia and had fixed the race and killed the king Pelops fights with Myrtilus and throws him over a cliff into the sea far below. Pelops and Hippodamia fall into each others arms. This is promising operatic stuff.

The Fibich’s slightly Schumann-inflected language is leavened by the blackest of brass contributions underlining the dark skein of intrigue and lust. The actors are uniformly excellent, intoning the Czech words and investing them with feeling. It is really more like a radio play with a larger-than-life musical score. It is a continuous tapestry of melody rather than incidental music which often comprise brief packets of music here and there.

At end of track 2 (disc 1) listen to the drum-beat which gives forward momentum and suggests fear over Myrtilus’s resentment and commitment to intrigue. Other highlights include the solo violin’s sweet singing in the prelude to scene 3. There is also a great paean of triumph and anticipation to announce the start of the chariot race in which King Oenomaus’s death is planned by Hippodamia who must have Pelops.

The music occasionally sounds like Elgar (would Elgar have completed his sacred trilogy if he had committed to melodrama rather than sung oratorio?). Other ‘voices’ are there too: Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann (quite often), Smetana and Dvorak.


2. The Atonement of Tantalus (four acts)

Jaroslava Adamova; Eduard Cupak; Martin Ruzek

Kuhn Mixed Choir/Pavel Kuhn

Brno State PO/Frantisek Jilek


Vrchlicky (the playwright) wrote Tantalus in the knowledge that it would be set to music by Fibich. The other two parts were written quite independently and earlier. The first to appear was Hippodamia’s Death. Vrchlicky’s play ‘A Night at Karlstein’ was the inspiration for Fibich’s overture (a work which, in its whirling and bubbling champagne energy, is fully the match for Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture) of the same name.

The plot of part 2 continues from where the first melodrama ends and does so without a temporal break. Pelops returns with Hippodamia to his home and his father King Tantalus. He rejects his virtuous and innocent childless wife, Axiocha and with Hippodamia humiliates her in front of the people. Pelops returns to Pisae to put down an invasion. Tantalus, guilt-ridden by his own previous crimes, announces that his kingdom shall be open to any seeking asylum. Axiocha returns and takes him up on this. Hippodamia ensures that she is rejected. Tantalus is racked by yet more guilt. Pelops returns to discover that after her exile Axiocha bore a child but has been killed on Hippodamia’s orders. He promises his wife’s shade that he will protect the child. Tantalus adopts the child. The bloody Hippodamia vows the child shall die but, despite her entreaties, Pelops acknowledges the child as his own. Tantalus dies atoned in his son’s arms.

The second in the cycle launches with a sullen indomitable prelude. The rich interweaving of themes amongst a great tapestry of music continues unabated. There are so many striking effects. Track 12 (disc 1) for example is notable for the cry of ‘aaaah’ which is repeated in tones of increasing resignation and tenderness by the chorus. The orchestra throughout is a grand and large one featuring harp and gong. As for the themes, they are often memorable though the grandiose theme for Tantalus is pompous and hollow (at least partially suitable - the pity is that there is not enough torture in his music).

3. Hippodamia’s Death (four acts)

Jaroslava Adamova; Eduard Cupak; Josef Vinklar

Kuhn Mixed Choir/Pavel Kuhn

Brno State PO/Frantisek Jilek

The final instalment of this royal soap (or gore) opera was written first in time by Vrchlicky.

Twenty years have passed under Pelops’ rule. Pelops is now king of Elis. He is married to Hippodamia and they have two sons Atreus and Thyestes, the latter a chip off Hippodamia’s block - thirsty for power, full of treachery and scheming. Chryssipus, Pelops’ son with Axiocha, is favoured by Pelops. Myrtilus returns having been thought to have been slain at the end of part I. Airopa, a hostage princess living in Pelops’ court, is the source of trouble among the three sons. Hippodamia spurs her all too willing sons into plotting against Chryssipus. Myrtilus returns as a beggar like an echo of Ulysses. The games are to be held and against their father’s express prohibition Chryssipus and Atreus enter the games and the games are abandoned. Myrtilus meets Chryssipus and tells him of his father’s crime and the role played by Hippodamia. Chryssipus denounces his mother for the murder of Oenomaus. Atreus stabs Chryssipus who dies but not before cursing Hippodamia. Thyestes draws his knife and finishes off Chryssipus. Pelops is devastated by the loss of his favourite son and be the revelation of a dark secret which only Myrtilus could have known. Pelops determines to find Myrtilus and extract the truth about the plot and whether Myrtilus had been rewarded with Hippodamia’s bed. Airopa, misled by the treacherous Thyestes, leaves the city. Pelops banishes Atreus and Thyestes for the death of Chryssipus. Hippodamia will not support this decision. Hippodamia makes Atreus promise to kill Pelops. Atreus pretends to be Chryssipus and goes in that guise to see Myrtilus. Hippodamia is tormented by her multiple levels of guilt. She turns on Pelops blaming him. Pelops forces her to confess all that she has done and she turns on him with a dagger. Myrtillus refuses to tell Pelops what reward he received for conspiring in killing Oenoamus. Pelops kills Myrtillus. Hippodamia sees her father’s dying curse coming true around her and in despair stabs herself. Pelops leaves to open his palace to the divine retribution of the Furies. All ends in a bleak negation.

Track 3 of CD 1 delivers a grand triumphant ceremonial scene. For the first time we get an impression strongly reminiscent of Dvorák and this returns again in tracks 5 with a grand march hinting at Dvorák’s Symphonic Variations and also in track 13. Track 11 has music of overflowing great tenderness. An odd echo Boieldieu is found in the harp solos in track 14. The music is hyper-romantic with modernistic brass. The textures become more impressionistic and there are hints of mature Tchaikovsky.

The second disc opens by unfolding a shapely Elgarian tune with a dash of Lizst. This is energised by a white-glowing passion and by a waywardness which contrasts with the customarily more uncomplicated Dvorak. The music underpinning track 5 is of similar character but again with washes of Tchaikovsky; witness the clarinet tune in track 5 at 3:23. Turmoil is to the fore in this last part of the trilogy. An uncanny fore-echo of Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter surces in track 9 at 1.25 and the Finnish composer’s first symphony seems about to rear up in track 12. The acting is fully committed coaxing or berating, loving or cold. Overall the feeling of summation and consummation makes this listening experience distinctive and worth the effort of concentration.

If I had to restrict myself to only one of the trilogy this is the one I would choose.



Fibich is a significant composer who wrote rewarding lyrical music without the revolutionary edge of a Janacek but with a sturdy and often inspired gift for melody and drama. These strong gifts are to the fore in this towering cycle. His orchestration tends towards Dvorák and Smetana but is no empty facsimile of either.

I do not know his operas but would expect them to be well worth the effort. In many ways the Hippodamia trilogy is a counterpart for an operatic cycle. He must surely have wondered about it as a sort of Czech national Ring. Its themes are universal and in their extremes of emotion will hold the attention. The figure of Hippodamia is not a sympathetic one but is certainly commanding. She is in some ways a combination of Lady Macbeth and Balakirev’s Tamara.

Those who would like to learn some Czech (which seems to be precisely though not pedantically enunciated although I confess I do not know the language at all) will, no doubt, find the set worthwhile and would wile away a long journey in the car or on headphones in the train or coach.

The Supraphon catalogue seems quite stable but I would recommend a prompt purchase of this full price set (although each part is I believe available separately) for those at all interested in this lively monument to a fine composer. His music is pretty consistently rewarding and his oeuvre still seems likely to have many agreeable surprises and challenging discoveries for us.

The musical language of the melodramas is tangy but familiar and when mixed with the resonantly acted words makes for a powerful epic experience. Recommended for those who enjoy the Fibich symphonies, Suk’s Asrael and Dvorak. I should also have added that the music is quite Tchaikovskian especially in part 3.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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