Jiří Heřman’s Edgy and Grand Libuše Celebrates 100 Years of Czech Statehood

31/10/2018

Smetana, Libuše: Soloists, National Theatre Brno Chorus and Orchestra / Robert Kružík (conductor), Brno Exhibition Centre – Pavilion P, Brno, 28.10.2018. (RP)

Czech Presidents T. G. Masaryk and Václav Havel in Smetana’s Libuše
© National Theatre Brno

Cast:
Libuše – Lucie Hájková
Přemysl – Jiří Hájek
Chrudoš – Pavoľ Remenár
Šťáhlav – Dušan Růžička
Lutobor – Jan Šťáva
Radovan – Roman Hoza
Krasava – Alžběta Poláčková
Radmila – Václava Krejčí Housková
1st Harvester – Andrea Široká
2nd Harvester – Daniela Straková-Šedrlová
3rd Harvester – Jitka Klečanská
4th Harvester – Petr Levíče
T. G. Masaryk – Marek Pospíchal

Production:
Director – Jiří Heřman
Set design – Tomáš Rusín
Costume design – Zuzana Štefunková-Rusínová
Lighting design – Daniel Tesař
Dramaturgy – Patricie Částková
Chorus master – Pavel Koňárek
Movement collaboration – Kateřina Nováčková

The fanfares from Libuše greeted Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, upon his arrival in Prague in December 1918. He had been in the U.S. when the country’s independence was proclaimed in Prague’s Wenceslas Square on 28 October. Masaryk and his wife, Charlotte, later attended a celebratory performance of the opera in Prague’s National Theatre with the great Czech soprano Emmy Destinn as the mythical princess.

That was the context for director Jiří Heřman’s new production of Libuše to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. The year 1918 resonates not only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (which split to form its own country in 1993) but throughout Central and Eastern Europe: in the wake of World War I the map of Europe was redrawn, and the nationalist hopes of many people were fulfilled.

According to legend, Libuše (performed by the gleaming soprano Lucie Hájková costumed as Destinn was in 1918, judging from the photos on display) inherited the throne of Bohemia following the death of her father and went on to establish the city of Prague. She is called upon by Radmila (given voice by the dark, rich mezzo-soprano of Václava Krejčí Housková) to resolve an inheritance dispute between her two brothers, Chrudoš (the rather tetchy but firm-voiced baritone Pavoľ Remenár) and Šťáhlav (the fine lyric tenor Dušan Růžička).

The brothers’ Uncle Lutobor (Jan Šťáva’s tightly focused bass found its sweet spot in the vast space, ringing out clear and true) escorts his feuding nephews to the assembly at which Libuše imposes Bohemian law, declaring that both brothers inherit equally. Chrudoš, the older brother, had advocated the application of German law which would have left him as the sole heir.

The brothers are also rivals over the beautiful Krasava (the ever radiant Alžběta Poláčková). To force Chrudoš’s hand she feigns an interest in his younger brother. Guilt-ridden, Krasava confesses her duplicity and her love for Chrudoš.

In the wake of Chrudoš’s outbursts and misogynistic remarks, Libuše declares her intention to marry. To the surprise of all she chooses a farmer, Přemysl (baritone Jiří Hájek, stalwart and true), as her future spouse. Radovan (the eager and winning baritone Roman Hoza) charges off to give Přemysl the good news; although reluctant to leave his farm, he accepts her proposal.

The opera was staged in the enormous Pavilion P of the Brno Exhibition Centre; the city’s Janáček Theatre is under renovation and will reopen on 17 November with The Cunning Little Vixen. The main stage element of Heřman’s production was a replica of Prague’s National Theatre, with a bust of Smetana resting in its center.

As with his staging of Faust (see review here), Heřman effectively utilized the vast expanse of the pavilion. Masaryk entered on a brown charger, while Přemysl galloped to greet his bride on a white stallion. The stage elements mentioned in the opera were present — the lime tree, fire and water. Filmed images were occasionally projected on the back wall of the pavilion, but they were perfunctory, doing little to advance or illuminate the plot.

Patriotism abounded as huge swaths of red, white and blue cloth (the Czech national colors) rippled across the stage. The crown, sceptre and orb of the Kingdom of Bohemia were on display, as well as a ceremonial sword and what appeared to be an over-sized version of Czechoslovakia’s 1918 constitution. There was, however, a twist.

Czech leaders from the past hundred years were represented on stage by over-sized busts on legs. Two emerged as unsullied heroes, Masaryk and Václav Havel (complete with sweater vest) who became president after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Edvard Beneš, who held office during the perilous times when Nazi and Soviet domination loomed, as well as led the government in exile during World War II, was presented ambiguously, as an observer rather than a shaper of events.

The leaders during Nazi domination and Soviet-era strongmen roamed the stage aimlessly. Havel’s two successors, including the 74-year-old current President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, were kept at arm’s length. When Libuše goes to pick a husband, all except Masaryk, Beneš and Havel rushed forward to be considered and were chagrined to find themselves rejected. Heřman’s satirical jabs must have hit home, judging from the laughter of those sitting near me.

Heřman did not shy away from physical humor. Rather than sleek athletic young men and women performing gymnastics in a Communist-era sokol, the four harvesters huffed and puffed while doing exercises to the lively playing of clarinetists Tomáš Kraus and Michal Křiž, who joined them on stage. The entire chorus later performed precision exercises in red, white and blue uniforms (the women were far more coordinated than the men, who were rather a sorry lot in this regard). Their red scarves were later gathered and burned, historical hubris gone up smoke.

The rousing fanfares played from the sides of the audience gave a surround-sound feel to the experience. Voices carried – no problems there – and conductor Robert Kružík (who also did double duty playing the cello solo on stage) was ever attentive to balance, but I missed a real theater. Smetana’s melodies and orchestrations are so beautiful and interesting that I wanted to hear them compressed, rather than expansive.

The opera ends with Libuše’s prophetic vision of the glorious future of the Czech nation, only a distant hope when Smetana completed the opera in 1872. To the rousing music the soloists and chorus pushed their leaders past and present (except, of course, for the three) to the edge of the stage and confronted them. It was an edgy finale to what is deemed the Czech national opera.

After a brief smattering of applause, the first notes of the Czech national anthem, ‘Kde domov můj’ (‘Where my home is’), sounded and all stood. There was jubilation in the air.

Rick Perdian

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