Smetana's Dalibor: As Tragic Opera

By Ottlova, Marta | Czech Music, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Smetana's Dalibor: As Tragic Opera


Ottlova, Marta, Czech Music


As part of the second day of celebrations surrounding the laying of the foundation stone for the Czech National Theatre on the 16th of May 1868 Bedrich Smetana's third opera, Dalibor, was premiered at the New Town Theatre, a branch stage of the Prague Provisional Theatre. After The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride, respectively a historic and a comic opera, Smetana presented the public with yet another opera type, a tragic opera. Once the mood of a premiere evening during such important celebrations for the Czech public had passed, it became apparent that while the Smetana's first two operas had been received with enthusiasm and especially in the case of The Bartered Bride spontaneously identified with the ideal of national opera, the Czech public were far less interested in the third. After five presentations the opera in the following year dropped out of repertoire and lack of public understanding of the work became a source of lifelong disappointment for the composer. The very first reviews claimed to see Wagner's influence in the piece and Dalibor immediately--from the beginning of the 1870s--became a contentious issue in the polemics over Wagner that were raging all over Europe including Prague, and that in Bohemia were linked to disputes on the future direction and form of Czech national opera. Subsequently most critical interpretation of Smetana's opera approached the work in this context, but without its authors usually even bothering to pose the question of what was really at stake beneath all the references to Wagner and his music drama at the time. Musicology orientated to the various definitions of the idea of progress interpreted the relative public failure of the work as a victory for Smetana's opponents and its difficult path to recognition as a struggle between the forces of progress and mediocrity.

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The doubts aroused by Dalibor after its premiere even among critics who subsequently clearly took Smetana's side in later polemics draw attention, however, to other problematic aspects that need to be taken into account. Above all it is evident that the subject chosen by Josef Wenzig for his libretto, which naturally helped to ensure that Smetana's opera was viewed above all as a historical opera, was itself a factor. It is significant that in the 1870s the idea of Czech national serious opera meant exclusively a work based on historical subject, ideally from Czech history, and that French grand opera was considered the obligatory model here. The attitude is evident in the critics' objections that Dalibor contained too few of the ensembles and choruses that were regarded as the main bearer of national local colour (the criticisms of Dalibor for being insufficiently Czech compared to Smetana's previous operas derive from the same idea) and the objections that apart from the personal conflicts there was a lack of "masses mightily intervening in the action" as Ludevit Prochazka put it.

The subject itself fell naturally into the context of the Czech historical consciousness and subconsciousness--of the myth that the nation had created about itself and its history. At the time, the very well-known, popular and often reworked tale of Dalibor had acquired relatively stable and fixed sets of meanings. On the one hand there was the notion of the historical personage Dalibor of Kozojedy (as described by historian Frantisek Palacky) as a rebellious and undaunted Bohemian knight of the 15th century who took under his protection the serfs of the neighbouring estate after they had risen against the oppression of their lord, and on the other hand there was the notion of imprisoned Dalibor the violinist, whose moving music was supposed to have regularly drawn people to listen under his prison window, i.e a Dalibor who was the symbol of the Czech musicality already emerging in the so-called philological phase of the national revival as a particularly distinctive element in the characterology of the Czech nation. …

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