Smetana’s Libuše in Plzen

Libuše is a strange piece. A myth set in pre-Christian times, it purports to locate the origins of the Czech nation in ideals of reconciliation and love of nature. The music is Smetana in his stirringly patriotic, rather than lyrical, mode. Its five tableaux are episodic without a strong dramatic core, but it has a powerful emotional appeal as evidenced by the performance at Plzen, elderly members of the audience breaking into applause at Libuše’s prophetic outburst: “my beloved Czech nation will never perish; it will overcome terrible disasters”. Visually the production of Martin Otava and Tomáš Pilař was stunning, the mythical past being created in a pagan Stonehenge-like setting, in half-light when not strongly illuminated by the symbolic midday sun. The costumes were black, white and various shades of grey. The stylised chorus moved and sang impressively. A pity that the soloists did not always blend well with the mystic atmosphere. While Ivana Veberová in the title role was  superb, both vocally with her steely but also attractive timbre, and dramatically with graceful gestures, the male singers tended to rant and strut as though in an Italian 19th century melodrama. Jiří Štrunc was the somewhat heavy-handed conductor.