The opening night of the latest production of Smetana's tragedy Dalibor ended in a near disaster of operatic proportions. The show was denounced by both critics and the public, and during lukewarm applause accompanied by boos and whistles, the director Jan Antonin Pitinsky slinked off stage. He has born the brunt of the criticism, accused by some of being too experimental, as he transferred the legend to the present day, while others claimed that his production was too fragmented and impossible to follow. I talked a professor of musicology at Charles University Jarmila Gabrielova who told me this wasn't the first time this particular opera had encountered problems.
"It's Smetana's first opera, and it was his first attempt to write a serious tragic opera on a tragic historical plot. It was first performed in 1868 and it was appreciated warmly in the beginning. But some months or some years later on a hard criticism was opened on this opera. The enemies of Smetana said that it was Wagnerian and not Czech; and it was a hard struggle in newspapers and musical journals of the time. And the problem of the opera is, not only in my opinion, is that it is a very, very good music with very, very poor repertoire. The story is rather poor one and it makes serious problems when it should be staged."
And problems it most certainly did have. According to the papers this week the key problem has been with the set design, lighting, and costumes... all of which make this difficult love tragedy even harder to follow. But are Czech audiences perhaps just too conservative? I asked Ms. Gabrielova...
"I would say that today's problem is that the operatic public is rather conservative. I would say that they just can't imagine having modern, and non-traditional and maybe controversial performance at the National Theater. They expect to have something more traditional in historical streams without contemporary story, in contemporary costumes, and contemporary stage and so on. Every opera or every dramatic work is suitable, or is possible to do something with. In Germany or in the United States or somewhere else you can say controversial Verdi or Wagner, I think. There are too few such controversial performances. The public here just didn't get used to it."
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