Opera in three acts
(b. Leitomischel, 2 March 1824 – d. Prague 12 Mayi 1884)
Bedrich Smetana (1824-84) composed eight operas, with the ninth, Viola left as an incomplete fragment. The Bartered Bride is a staple comic opera, and some of his other works in the genre have been revived in recent years, including Dalibor (1868) and Libuse (1869-72). Smetana designated Libuse, a festival opera, since the work was composed for the opening of the Czech National Theater. Yet the delays in the completion of the house delayed the premiere of Libuse, which was only given its premiere under the direction of the composer on 11 June 1881, almost a decade after its completion.
Smetana’s Libuse is a work in three acts, with a libretto that was written by Josef Wenzig, who had contributed the text for his previous opera, Dalibor (1865-67, revised version, 1870). Even though Wenzig wrote the libretto in German, Smetana set the text in the Czech translation that was prepared by Ervn Spindler. Working in tandem with the translator, Smetana finished the first act in September 1871, the second in February 1872, and the third and final act in November 1872. While the entire opera was essentially completed in 1872, it was set aside until it could be performed when the Czech National Theater was finished and formally opened to the public.
In Libuse, Smetana dealt with an historic episode about Bohemia and the founding of one of the ruling dynasties that shaped the nation. Libuse was Queen of Bohemia, who faced family strife, as her cousins Chrudos and Stáhlav resist Libuse’s authority. Libuse herself is unwilling to give in to her family’s concerns. In fact, she has been enamored of Premysl, who is not a noble, and marries him. Upon doing so, Libuse relinquishes her authority as ruler to her husband and with him establishes the Premysid dynasty, which ruled Bohemia through the early fourteenth century.
A large-scale work, the opera involves eight principals, the princess Libuse (soprano); her beloved Premysl (baritone); Libuse’s brothers Chrudos (bass) and Stáhlav (tenor); their sister Radmila (contralto); their uncle Lutobor (bass); Lutobor’s daughter Krasava (soprano); as well as a chorus that serves as members of the court or the people of Bohemia. The action takes place in the mountains of modern Bohemia, specifically Vysehrad, a site that is the subject of one of Smetana’s tone poems collected in Má vlast (“My country”), and Stadice.
The first act is divided into two scenes, with the first set on Vysehrad, where Radmila brings to Libuse ’s attention a dispute that Chrudos and Stáhlav have over their own inheritance, which has been confounded further through the meddling of Krasava. In the second scene, the brothers enmity escalates while waiting for Libuse’s judgment, and their uncle Lutobor is concerned that Libuse wed, so that her husband can share her responsibilities. Libuse enters and invokes tradition to have the brothers share the inheritance, a decision that Chrudos disputes. In frustration Libuse expresses her desire to surrender her power to a husband and suggests that the people choose one for her. They name Premysl Premysl of Stadice, a man whom Libuse has loved for years.
In the second act, Smetana uses the first scene to focus on the difficulties with Chrudos. As the scene opens, Krasava admits to her father that she loves Chrudos, even though she had previously rejected him. Stáhlav and Radmila, who happen to overhear her confession, ask Lutobor to allow Krasava to marry Chrudos, but Lutobor gives his blessing on the condition that Chrudos resolve his differences with Libuse. This action promises to resolve some of the strife that they were experiencing. The second scene shifts to Stadice, where Premysl longs to share his life with someone, and learns through the crowd that he is intended as the husband of Libuse.
The various strands of narrative resolve in the first scene of Act 3, where the brothers reconcile their differences, and Krasava is betrothed to Chrudos. At the end of the scene, the women of her court accompany Libuse in her wedding procession. Yet in the second scene, Chrudos is at first loathe to reconcile with Libuse, but is finally persuaded to do so. At the end of the scene, Libuse has a vision of the future, and she sees several images of future success for her people, as they are assured their greatness in the middle of European kingdoms.
As to the music, the opening prelude is notable for setting the stage well with the agitated figures that reflect the emotional situation with which the opera begins. It stands in contrast to the more assured and triumphal music that is part of the opera’s concluding section in its celebration of the Czech national spirit. At the same time some of the individual numbers have some memorable music. Of them, Premysl’s aria in the second scene of Act two Jiz plane slunce is notable for its expressiveness and range of emotion. It is followed by another fine tenor aria Ó vy lípy, which puts two demanding numbers for the character Premysl in the same scene. Near the end of the opera, though, the tableau with Libuse ’s prophetic vision includes a passage entitled Muj drah´y národ cesky´ neskoná an invocation of the enduring quality of the Czech people that is taken up by the ensemble on stage and points to the national fervor at the core of this work. This portion of the opera stands apart as a moment intended for the audience’s reflection, somewhat like the choral passages that Beethoven used near the end of Fidelio, after the culmination of the drama.
This underscores the function of the final scene of prophecy as being crucial to the designation of Libuse as a festival opera to be performed at state occasions. In fact, it is this very scene that Smetana composed in 1869 in the orchestral work Libusin soud (“Libuse’s Judgment”). Smetana planned the work as a tableau vivant that was based in part on a poem by Zelenohorsky´ and provided the inspiration for the opera that Smetana would compose between 1869 and 1872. The relationship between Libusin soud and the opera Libuse is reminiscent of what Alban Berg would later do, when he composed the symphonic suite that contained music that would later be used in the opera Lulu. At the same time, some of the musical themes he used in the opera Libuse appear in his cycle of tone poems Má Vlast, particularly Vysehrad (1880). The connection to the tone poem seems logical, when understood in the context of both works. Smetana designated Libuse as a festival opera and intended it to be performed at national celebrations. It was not envisioned as part of the repertoire, like The Bartered Bride, but a work that was more or less restricted to national celebrations. At the same time, the tone poem Vysehrad evokes a place associated with the history of the country and has almost mythic associations. It is also the setting for some of the action in the operas Libuse. Viewing the opera Libuse as a narrative about some of the founding legends of the country, it is not surprising to find Smetana using some similar themes, as such self-references are to be expected.
As a festival opera, Libuse is not so much historic as it legendary in nature, and evokes myth to convey its meaning to the audience. By its nature, opera revolves around dramatic situations and is not necessarily constrained by details of historic facts when it can communicate better deeper truths and messages. Smetana truncated or conflated historic events and personages in Libuse to enhance the kind of drama that makes the narrative meaningful. Thus, depiction of Libuse as found in this opera is connected to the sometimes fanciful on retellings of Czech history by nineteenth-century writers like Alois Jirasek. Yet such portrayals work in the idiom of opera, which often pivots around characters who are larger than life. Smetana’s Libuse is thus more like the character of Didone as Hector Berlioz depicted her in Ley Troyens, and the patriot sentiments found in Libuse also echo some of the enthusiasm for his native culture that Richard Wagner used to excellent effect in opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. If Libuse contains elements that are sometimes larger than life, it is because of the way Smetana used the conventions of operas to create a highly effective work for the Czech stage.
James L. Zychowicz, 2006
For performance material please contact the publisher Schott, Mainz. Reprint of a copy from the Musikabteilung der Leipziger Städtischen Bibliotheken, Leipzig.
160 x 240 mm