We live in grievous, nay parlous, times, operatically-speaking. Last night we had the (much-belated) premiere of the Polish Szymanowski’s Król Roger at Covent Garden; next season they (equally belatedly) premiere the Romanian Enescu’s Oedipe; and tonight the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a concert performance of the Czech Smetana’s Dalibor. It’s enough to give a body the conniptions, all these eastern Europeans coming over here and taking up strictly limited and valuable space in our lyric theatres thereby denying the repertory – already stuffed to the rafters with degenerate foreign filth as it is – access to such wholesome and morally-redemptive native fare as, say, Merrie England or The Yeomen of the Guard (not to mention Powder Her Nose and Punch and Judy). It’ll be Slovenes next. I’m amazed that that Mr. Farridge and his U-Kippers don’t picket the opera houses and concert halls where all this shamefully unpatriotic malarkey goes on. Perhaps they can’t quite work out where they are (hint: not in Clacton).

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Meanwhile, Jiři Bĕlohlávek, the BBC SO’s former Chief Conductor, pursues his ongoing series of Czech operas given in (variably semi-staged) concert at the Barbican which has so far included Julietta, Mr. Brouček’s Excursions, The Jacobin and The Bartered Bride, amongst others. Dalibor was a favourite opera of both George Harewood and Charles Mackerras, so it’s no surprise that the work’s first professional outings in the UK were at the Edinburgh Festival (when Lord Harewood was in charge) and then at the Coliseum, in 1976, when the two men ran the ENO together. True, Smetana’s opera has its dramatic weaknesses – a poorly-integrated and largely undeveloped second pair of soprano/tenor roles, a remote authoritarian king who gets uncharacteristically gabby and oddly even-handed far too late in the plot, a titular “hero” motivated solely by revenge for the death of his soul-mate (a violin-playing man), and a bizarrely abrupt ending – but the music is on an altogether higher and more consistent level throughout, and at its best is as good as anything the composer ever wrote.

Dalibor was Smetana’s third opera, premiered in Prague in 1868, and destined never to enjoy success in the composer’s own lifetime (nor indeed much more of it at any time since). The seven roles pretty much conform, in terms of their vocal disposition, to those in Beethoven’s Fidelio, whose rescue-from-prison plot by a woman disguised as a boy cosying up to the jailer is indeed recycled here, forming the substance of Act II (the first is concerned with the hero’s trial and judgment, the third with the rescue itself, which goes spectacularly wrong, ending with a double death). The outer acts perhaps overdo the repetitive processional and pageantry, surely indebted to Lohengrin, though a lot perkier: but the actual quality of musical thought and its leitmotivic layering is very fine, and the opportunities the writing gives for powerhouse vocal declamation in the roles of Milada and Dalibor (Leonore and Florestan, in effect) are both impressive and extensive.

I don’t know how much rehearsal time these projects are vouchsafed, or to what extent their widely-spaced regularity is giving the orchestra a cumulative special feel for the idiom: but whatever the practicalities, the band plays these scores quite wonderfully, and played the Smetana tonight with sumptuously upholstered sonority and tremendous rhythmic bite. Superb choral work, too, from the BBC Singers, small in number (it’s a professional body, so they need paying) but disproportionately voluminous in sound. The “semi-staging” credited to Kenneth Richardson (who gave us riotous accounts of the Martinů and Janáček operas) didn’t deliver much beyond the odd – in both senses – bit of props and costuming (Milada in disguise wearing high heels, a waistcoat, trousers and a flat cap didn’t look so much like a boy as resemble Natalie Dessay in recital). The hall was plunged into Stygian gloom – the band played from stand-lights – with the occasional moody projection on to the wood-clad walls. There were appropriate entrances and exits for the characters, but of the kind of inventiveness and interest previous such performances have managed staging-wise, there was truthfully very little trace tonight.

The soloists were all good(ish), though the two women outshone the five men. Even so, the single finest voice on display was that of Svatopluk Sem, singing the alas nugatory role of Budivoj, the King’s Castle’s Chief Guard, in a baritone of such fullness, flesh and firmness as to make the other four male roles pale in comparison. And, of course, this unfortunately included the singer of title role, Richard Samek, whose vocal technique is excellent, but whose actual tenor sound is thin, nasal, colourless and progressively more and more pinched the higher it goes: his great hymn to freedom in Act III scene 2 – narratively no more than his own, it’s true, following his imminent escape, but somehow adumbrating that of an entire nation – here emerged as little more than a series of barely-audible squeaks largely obliterated by the thunderous orchestra. This is all the more regrettable given that Aleš Voráček, in the utterly pointless part of Vitek (thrown in, I suspect, so that the seconda donna role of Jitka should have a love interest of her own rather than pining for her sometime saviour Dalibor and thereby upsetting the smitten Milada, her ally) sounded to me in his few utterances as if he actually had the wherewithal to realise the title role properly.

Jan Stava sang as the jailer Beneš (or Rocco, if you prefer) in a voice that oozed verisimilitude given that he’s always going on about his forty-odd years of service and how old he is – i.e. therefore sounding woofly and very well-worn – so that it came as a rather disconcerting surprise to find that the bass is actually on the right side of thirty. Ivan Kusnjer, by contrast, is on the wrong side of fifty and looks like a short, podgy version of Kurt Masur: but due allowances made, his slightly stentorian and effortful baritone made a far better fist of the role of the King, even if Smetana’s writing for him is quite the most ploddingly four-square in the whole score.

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But the real vocal jewels tonight were the women, Alžbĕta Poláčková as Jitka, and Dana Burešová as Milada. They make for an interesting exercise in compare-and-contrast, since both could, I imagine, sing each other’s role in this opera (and both their repertoires contain the title roles in The Cunning Little Vixen and Rusalka, the latter of which most certainly does not sing itself). To (over)differentiate, Poláčková has the sweeter-sounding, slightly more girlish timbre, a perfectly-schooled middleweight lyric with an admirably bell-like upper-register (as befits the opera’s equivalent role to Marzelline); whereas Burešová’s is steelier, with greater heft and cleaving power (as befits the Leonore role) allied to a more mature, but colder, timbre. The latter’s frequent passages of either ecstatic abandon or rabble-rousing drew forth some of the most thrilling lirico-spinto soprano singing I’ve heard in quite some while (possibly since Varady) to the point that I sat there – not for the first time, as I’m sure you’re all aware by now – wondering why the gene-pool of such sopranos at Covent Garden barely extends beyond the increasingly blowsy and overblown Eva-Maria Westbroek – yes, she’s a good actress: but it’s an opera house, not the RSC – and why it is that an artist of Burešová’s outstanding calibre has yet to be heard there. Or indeed Poláčková’s, no less thrilling in her own way, and surely no less capable of revitalising an increasingly knackered core repertory of clapped-out, no-cast, war horses (if the ROH mounts La traviata one more time before I turn 39, I swear I’m torching the building. No jury would convict).

Why these women remain pinned in Prague, as if the Iron Curtain still existed and they needed lovers in the Ministry of Culture in order to get a visa to escape, I have no idea. But we need them here, and we need them both regularly and urgently (almost as urgently as we need to get rid of the ROH’s kloth-eared kasting krew). Until that happy, blessed day, we’ve more cause to be thankful to Jiři Bĕlohlávek and his Czech connections than to anyone in Bow Street for bringing us new and exciting vocal talent: and to the BBC and the Barbican for presenting it to the public.

4½ stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photo of Jiři Bĕlohlávek by Clive Barda / photo of Alžbĕta Poláčková from http://www.operaplus.cz )

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