Smetana’s Dalibor in Frankfurt

The critics have not been kind to the Frankfurt revival of Smetana’s Dalibor, in particular directing their ire at Florentine Klepper’s staging. I disagree totally with their judgements: it was an exhilarating evening of musical theatre.

Let me begin with the production which distanced itself from the Czech nationalism of the libretto in order to demonstrate that conflict and violence between all political forces end up with tragic, negative consequences, and that, with much relevance for our contemporary world, reasoned political debate is subverted by hypocrisy, showmanship and the media. To reinforce the latter, the principal events are set in a TV studio. I normally groan when I see television shows interpolated into a drama because they are so often banal, but here the device worked very well to convey the superficiality of, and manipulation involved in, political discourse.

The King, clad in a shiny blue-silvery suit, presided over Dalibor’s trial – all show and no substance – while Chancellor Budivoj directed proceedings, ensuring that the audience cheered and booed in the right places.  Eventually, as the forces of opposition succeed in freeing the convicted and imprisoned Dalibor, the King and Chancellor have to cede before a vociferous mob, but since the opposition is divided among itself, chaos ensues …

Although this contemporary take on Dalibor might seem alien to Smetana’s work, it does not pervert it, and indeed provides a coherence which is lacking in the somewhat jolting, awkward original.  It was also immaculately presented, visually entrancing (designer Boris Kudlička), and with an attention to details which were always related to the themes of the production and therefore never gratuitous. Nor did it work against the music which was allowed to dominate action and movement, rather than be a decorative addition.

And the performance of the music was in very capable hands. Veteran conductor Stefan Soltesz injected a nervous pulse into the score, pushing the drama forward with vigour and excitement. If Aleš Briscein, in the title role, did not have the weight of voice necessary for some passages, he nevertheless sang with authority and his attractive tenor gave much pleasure. Izabela Matula as Milada certainly had the requisite power and her soprano soared with passion and intensity. Thomas Faulkner’s resonant bass successfully projected the lower notes in gaoler Beneš’ outbursts and he offered a sensitive portrayal of a servile inadequate, bemused by the contradictions of events around him. There were fine supporting performances from Simon Bailey (Budivoj), Angela Vallone (Jitka) and Theo Lebow (Vitek).  The star of the show, in more than one sense, was Gordon Binter as the King: a seductive presence, elegant movements – at one point gliding across the stage on roller skates – and caressing the vocal line with his superb baritone.

I repeat: an exhilarating evening of musical theatre.