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Classical music: Czech out Bedřich Smetana, opera’s forgotten composer

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884) - 'the outstanding figure in Czech opera'

Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884) - 'the outstanding figure in Czech opera'

Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884) - 'the outstanding figure in Czech opera'

Think of opera, and it’ll be the big names that come to mind — Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Mozart. Beyond those, though, there is a veritable host of composers. The New Penguin Opera Guide, which is as comprehensive an exploration of the genre as you could wish, runs to well over 1,000 pages. From Antonio Maria Abbatini, a 17th-century Roman credited with the creation of the first truly comic opera — Dal Male il Bene (From Evil to Good) — to Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, who lived from 1760 to 1802 and wrote works in the German Singspiel style, they’re all there. First published as The Viking Opera Guide in 1993, a new online edition is in preparation. This must be the most amazing labour of love for its editor, the English musician, writer, and opera translator Amanda Holden (no, not the one from the ITV show Britain’s Got Talent). In this most detailed and informative single-volume encyclopedia, we read the story behind Beethoven’s solitary effort, Fidelio. We learn how Schubert never quite cracked the code for successful stage work. And we get a fascinating insight in the composer described as “the outstanding figure in Czech opera of the 19th century”, Bedřich Smetana. His route there was circuitous, to say the least. He had set out to go into performing, encouraged by the success of Franz Liszt, some 12 years his senior, who had become something of a mentor to him.

But things didn’t work out and at Liszt’s suggestion he moved to Sweden, where he would spend five years, enjoying some success.
His arrival back in Prague coincided with tangible evidence of the burgeoning sense of nationalism in the region in the shape of a new opera house, the Provisional Theatre.
Prior to its establishment, German had been the language of the stage in what was then still part of the Austrian Empire. The new venue was the first that would cater exclusively for productions in Czech.
There was just one problem. There wasn’t much to choose from.
So a philanthropic local aristocrat, Count Jan Harrach, took it upon himself to sponsor a competition to encourage the creation of original musical drama based on local culture.
Smetana wrote his first opera — The Brandenburgers in Bohemia — and entered the competition.
The Penguin Guide tells us that Count Harrach’s judges took their time — two-and-a-half years — before deciding that Smetana’s was the best of the four entries, and awarded him first prize.
By then, though, the public had spoken. The Brandenburgers had already been staged at the new Provisional Theatre and had been such a success that the composer was awarded the position of principal conductor at the venue as a result.
The Brandenburgers was swiftly followed by The Bartered Bride, which didn’t have quite the same impact when it premiered. Subsequent revisions, though, turned it into the most enduring of Smetana’s works for the musical stage.
From inauspicious beginnings, it took only 60 years for The Bartered Bride to notch up its 1,000th performance in Prague.
Another of Smetana’s operas celebrates the anniversary of its premiere today. It was on Tuesday November 7, 1876 that Hubička (The Kiss) had its first outing.
A firm favourite still with Czech audiences, it has slipped from the mainstream over the years, though it was revived twice in more recent times at the Wexford Opera Festival, in 1984, and again in 2010.
It’s a tale of love lost, and finally refound with the kiss of the title, made all the more poignant by its back story, because this was an opera written after the composer, like Beethoven before him, had gone totally deaf.

George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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