Smetana’s wacky village comedy The Kiss gets an exhilarating performance in Ostrava’s celebratory festival

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Smetana, The Kiss (Hubička): Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre /Marek Šedivý (conductor). Antonín Dvořák Theatre, Ostrava, 7.3.2024. (GT)

Veronika Rovná (Vendulka) © Martin Popelář

Stage director – Jiří Nekvasil
Set designer – Jakub Kopecký
Costume designer – Simona Rybáková
Motion cooperation – Jana Tomsová
Dramaturg – Juraj Bajús
Chorus master – Jurij Galatenko

Father Paloucký – Martin Gurbaľ
Vendulka – Veronika Rovná
Lukáš – Martin Šrejma
Tomeš – Svatopluk Sem
Martinka – Anna Nitrová
Barče – Marta Chila Reichelová
Matouš – Josef Škarka
Border Guard – Václav Čížek
Aurora – Stela Machová, Zuzana Smrčková

Bedřich Smetana wrote his sixth opera based on a libretto by the Czech poet Eliška Krásnohorská, and this successful collaboration led to her writing the librettos for the composer’s last operas. The Kiss became one of the favourite operas by Smetana – only The Bartered Bride is more popular. It was written when the composer suffered from deafness – yet remarkably after which he composed his masterpiece Má vlast, there was no decline in his musical invention. This was a time when he was afflicted by financial problems and the break-up of his relationship with his wife. The opera was written in nine months in 1875 and portrays the moral values prevailing in village society. Basically, just a minor incident in their mundane lives and a petty narrative about dishonour after a refused kiss: a common thing invoking the absurdity of village life.

The opera is based in the Krkonoše Mountains in Western Czechia and opens in Father Paloucký’s sitting room. The main plot is centred on the young widower Lukaš returning to his home village to pursue a relationship with his youthful love Vendulka after his arranged marriage. However, despite his father eventually giving his blessing to the union, he warns the couple are mismatched because of their stubborn and quick-tempered natures. Lukaš has returned home with a baby daughter, and there is a heartwarming lullaby as Vendulka consoles Lukas’s child, treating her as if it is her own. The lullaby is an old folk melody, ‘Sleep now my Angel’, and Smetana follows it up with a lullaby of his own invention ‘There was a white dove’.

A highlight of the first act is the duet between Lukaš and Vendulka, ‘My dearest One’ in which the Vendulka of Veronica Rovná reveals an outstanding coloratura, and at last, Father Paloucký Martin Gurbaľ) blesses the engagement, but when Lukaš goes to kiss her, she refuses him. Vendulka refuses his kiss because intimacy would offend his late wife’s memory. The villagers are shocked, ‘Shameless! A boy would feel ashamed’. The plot hints at the repressed sexuality hidden within village morality. Angry at her riposte, Lukaš seeks solace in the pub, where he befriends girls and musicians who dance belligerently under Vendulka’s window, making fun of her. Vendulka, in despair, leaves home to stay with her aunt Martinka. Martinka is a smuggler, and they go to join the smugglers at night in the forest.

Smetana’s The Kiss © Martin Popelář

Act II opens in the forest with trees suspended from above and a wall beyond which the old smuggler Matouš is lurking mysteriously as the smugglers calmly cross the stage singing a rather fateful chorus, ‘Let’s go!’ The ragged clothes of the smugglers are akin to The Hobbit with their hats and long dark beards; the procession is affecting in its almost religious monotones, and Smetana creates a nocturnal mood similar to Bizet’s smuggling scene in Carmen. There is a marvellous duet as Vendulka and Martinka sing of love ‘Herald, skylark, herald’, and this is followed by a glorious Wagnerian orchestral passage as the sun rises at dawn. In this beautiful sequence, we see the morning star with two girls bearing a sunny globe and bringing it to the front of the stage as light enters the scene. The Lukaš of Martin Šrejma sings a strikingly heartbreaking arioso as he regrets his past errors, ‘I’m miserable! If I knew how to redeem my guilt’. Matouš sees the distressed Lukaš wandering in the forest with his brother-in-law Tomeš (Svatopluk Sem), who advises him to go to Vendulka and ask forgiveness. Lukaš is encouraged and goes to make it up with his loved one. When Matouš sees Vendulka with Martinka, he suggests to Martinka that Vendulka reconciles with Lukaš, yet Vendulka refuses.

Now, in the light of day, upon returning to the village, Vendulka and Martinka see Lukaš with the villagers awaiting them. Vendulka is so touched by their goodwill and her lover asking forgiveness that Vendulka now agrees to let him kiss her, yet to everyone’s laughter, he refuses her kiss. He wants her to hear his forgiveness before he kisses her. At last, they kiss passionately, and the opera ends happily.

In the overture, the motif of each character is heard; Vendulka’s love of superstition and tenacity, while the motif of Lukaš is followed by the smugglers’ motif and the fourth motif denotes Lukas’s drunkenness. Martinka has her own quaver motif, portraying her breathlessness and rapid walking, while Father Paloucký is given the interval of a seventh, portraying his serious and ponderous nature.

The finest singing of the evening was Veronika Rovná as Vendulka, often matched by the beautiful mezzo-soprano of Anna Nitrová’s Martinka. The old smuggler, Matouš was finely characterised by Josef Škarka’s dark bass evincing all the profundity and gravity of his role. The bizarrely comic figure of the Border Guard was superbly acted out by Václav Čižek in his bright red and blue costume. The choreography was masterly directed by Jana Tomsová, and the sets by Jakub Kopecký were a little unusual but suited the underlying narrative of Smetana’s comic opera. They were all soft grey with a tree image imprinted on them, while the same colour scheme was used for Simona Rybáková’s costumes for the villagers, which made them look rather like prison inmates or hospital nurses. This production was first staged here in Ostrava on 23 September 2021.

This was an enjoyable performance of an opera with a fantastically quirky plot. However, the cause of the success was in the embroidering of beautifully colourful Czech folk harmonies and its adornment by outstanding singing, both in the ariosos, duets and choral singing, through which polkas and Czech dance rhythms were ever-present. Once again, the orchestra were superb in every department and was well-directed by the chief conductor Marek Šedivý. Yet another triumph in Ostrava’s celebration of this great Czech composer.

Gregor Tassie

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