Arcana at the opera: Libuše (first UK staging) – University College Opera @ Bloomsbury Theatre

Smetana Libuše

Libretto by Josef Wenzig, translated by Ervin Špindler. Sung in Czech with English surtitles

Libuše – Kirstin Sharpin (soprano)
Přemysl – Robert Davies (baritone)
Krasava – Eve Daniell (soprano)
Lutobor – John Mackenzie (baritone)
Chrudoš – James Quilligan (baritone)
St’áhlav – Ben Harding (tenor)
Radmilla – Ananya Samuel (mezzo-soprano)
Radovan – William Bennett (baritone)

Chorus and Orchestra of University College London / Charles Peebles

Cecilia Stinton (director),Holly Muir (designer), Alex Forey (lighting designer), Ester Rudhart (choreographer)

Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Monday 18 March 2019

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Back in its home venue following several years’ renovation and what could more appropriate for University College Opera than this first UK staging of Libuše, Smetana‘s ‘festival opera’ whose premiere the composer held back for almost a decade until the opening of Prague’s National Theatre in 1881? Indeed, other than a semi-staged presentation at the Edinburgh Festival two decades ago, this monument to national aspiration had never even been performed in the UK – hence making University College Opera’s production a further feather in the cap of this enterprising organisation.

An opera so centred on Czech legend was never likely to ‘translate’ easily in cultural terms. Cecilia Stinton‘s situating of it in a “futuristic City of London” is a plausible concept which rather misfires: the interplay between Medieval myth and post-modern setting rarely seems more than a hopeful compromise; in addition, the functional quality of Holly Muir‘s designs and Alex Forey’s effective if relatively unadventurous lighting tends to reinforced the static nature of Smetana’s music, though Ester Rudhart‘s choreography certainly enlivened the crowd scenes.

The cast, however, could hardly be faulted for insight or commitment. Kirstin Sharpin found imperiousness but also humanity in the title-role; a rounded and empathetic portrayal abetted by her vocal eloquence – not least in the prophecy of fraught yet glorious times ahead for the Czech nation that forms an apotheosis of truly Wagnerian grandeur. As her consort Přemysl, Robert Davies ably conveyed the wisdom and humanity of one whose idyllic rural existence (here made into an anarcho-socialist holiday camp) is unaffected by his sudden regal status.

As Krasava, Eve Daniell gave a magnetic assumption of one whose feminine guile provokes the initial crisis yet also eventually aids reconciliation through her strength of character. John Mackenzie brought real authority to Lutobor, with James Quilligan and Ben Harding equally inside their respectively anguished and bemused roles as the brothers Chrudoš and St’áhlav. Ananya Samuel conveyed the right degree of agitation as their put-upon sister Radmilla, and William Bennett made the most of his brief though strategic cameo as the envoy Radovan.

A further enhancement was the decision to sing this opera in Czech – which may have caused passing uncertainty for the UCL Symphony Chorus, though without detriment to their energy or zeal. A pity the UCL Symphony Orchestra’s playing was sometimes undermined by issues of intonation or ensemble – but this was, after all, the first night and any such failings should hopefully be ironed out over the remaining three performances. Charles Peebles conducted with a tangible conviction right across this opulent and sprawling canvas.

All in all, this was a flawed but capable and, certainly in vocal terms, distinguished rendering of an opera that is unlikely to receive further staging in the UK any time soon. Just over three decades after its memorable production of Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall, University College Opera has once again come to the aid of a composer whose contribution to mid-nineteenth century opera rarely receives its due. In vindicating the viability of Libuše as a theatrical and, above all, musical entity, it could not have launched this new phase of its existence more potently.

There are two more opportunities to see Libuše, on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 March. For more information head to the University College website

The only available recording of Libuše, conducted by František Jílek, can be heard on Spotify below:

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 7, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

Friendly Fire – Shakespeare 400: London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda

gianandrea-nosedaFriendly Fire – Simon Trpčeski, London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 25 February 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague to a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. Our second ‘reviewer’ in the series is John Earls, a family man from Harrow & Wealdstone who works as Head of Research at Unite. He shares his thoughts on a program of music inspired by ‘Shakespeare 400’ – with works by Smetana (Richard III), Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), Richard Strauss (Macbeth) and the seemingly unconnected Piano Concerto no.2 by Liszt. The artists are pianist Simon Trpceski and the London Symphony Orchestra under newly announced guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda.


Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

John: I didn’t do that much in the way of preparation, other than see what the four pieces in the concert were, and whether I was familiar with them. At the time the only one I thought I was familiar with was the Tchaikovsky, but you reminded me I had heard the Liszt before.

What was your musical upbringing?

As a young child, pretty limited. Most of the music I heard from my parents would have been Irish music, then as I went through school I was more exposed to bits of classical music, as I learned the clarinet. In my teens I got more into contemporary music, rock music, new wave – I played in my own band – and became more interested in jazz and classical music as I got older and attended more concerts and read more about those particular types of music. Jazz and classical are the forms of music I listen to most now.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

(almost without hesitation): Miles Davis was a trailblazer and an innovator who has done some very different things throughout his career. He also struck me as a great leader of bands and ensembles, because he was a great talent spotter who pulled some phenomenal musicians together, and it always struck me that anybody who played with him was better for the experience. They tended to be either better musicians or composersafter having gone through the Miles Davis experience, and also his ensembles tended to be greater than the sum of their parts.

I would also go for Christy Moore, who in many ways would be the soundtrack to my development and my life. I think he has a huge amount of integrity, and if you listen to him sing he comes across as somebody who really means it. If you see him performing live you see a gifted songwriter but also somebody who has a mission to transmit the songs he knows. He has a great deal of songs he hasn’t written but he is able to communicate and pass them on.

I should pick a band really…Wire. I saw them last year for the first time in around 30 years, at the Lexington near Kings Cross. They were influential in my formative days in the late 1970s / early 1980s. They were innovative and straddled the artistic side with the punk sensibility, but had the credibility of doing what they wanted to do. To release an album like they did last year nearly 40 years after they first started, and to think they can still do it, was a phenomenal achievement. They are still great live and the songs incredibly well crafted.

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’m not sure I fit your criteria of ‘someone who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert’. I’m actually a regular classical concert goer – all forms and types. Living in London I’ve been able to see some of the finest musicians and orchestras in the world. Many of my most treasured musical moments have been at ‘classical music’ concerts – Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Rattle and the Berlin Phil doing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Reich himself playing. I also think some pieces are best experienced live – Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. Had a few disappointments too! But live music is really important to me. 

What did you think of the Smetana?

I thought it was OK – I could see why they had used it as a piece with which to start. Would I have got the Shakespeare connection? Probably not, but having known it I could see there were bits that sounded regal. Some bits reminded me of a royal hunt, with lots of trumpet. Some of it was like a fanfare but there was solo trumpet that was quite ‘angsty’ and personal. I suppose the trumpet has royal connections. Those things came into my mind while I was listening but I’m not sure, as a piece of music, I would be in a huge hurry to listen to it again.

What about the Liszt?

I hadn’t remembered that I had heard it before. I quite enjoyed it, but there were parts where the pianist seemed a bit stroppy and belligerent, reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis! I enjoyed it a bit less than I thought I was going to but the thing that did stick out for me was the cello (Rebecca Gilliver’s solo in the third movement – ed). The sound was absolutely beautiful.

What about the Tchaikovsky?

I was more familiar and knew what to expect. I wasn’t used to being that close to the orchestra! If you heard those four pieces of music and was told there was a Shakespeare link to be honest I probably couldn’t have noticed it, but the one that would be most likely would be that one – and you would probably think Romeo and Juliet because of the tragedy, the romance and the action. You almost feel like you’re in a Bond movie! It’s got everything in it, around 16 minutes, it packs it all in, and it’s Tchaikovsky, who I love.

Finally, what about the Richard Strauss?

I thought that was a good piece to finish on. It had a range of things. I don’t think I would have thought Shakespeare but it was more personal in that it was not necessarily a narrative story – you’re inside somebody’s head. I’ve got ‘magisterial’ written down here, and I felt there was a real tension in it. The offstage snare drum was great, I always like that use of the space, and I’ve not heard the percussion played like that before (the tam tam I think! – ed)

It was more psychological I think, and it was only in that piece that I noticed Noseda’s score was tiny, I’ve never seen one so small! I enjoyed the music, and would go back to listen to it again. I didn’t realise Strauss was 24, that’s quite a phenomenal achievement – not only to put all the instrumentation together but to get the psychological elements at that stage, you would think only an older composer would manage that.

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

The only PR I’ve seen was the Shakespeare-related things, and I couldn’t see the link with the Liszt, but I like the idea of linking things in. Sometimes it can be a bit contrived but I think if it’s used as a technique to expose you to different bits of music then that’s fine – like Romeo and Juliet – and it worked for me in the case of the Strauss but not the Smetana.

I think they got the range and order of the pieces right. I’ve been to the Barbican as a venue, and I do like the way it works with an instrument offstage, like they did with the Strauss. I’ve seen that done with vocal and choral pieces and it can work. I think the conductor was quite energetic, not necessarily in a flowing way – quite staccato would be your terminology! There seemed a good rapport between him and the orchestra, the sense they really respect him.

If you could give it a mark out of 10 what would you give?

Probably a 7, but that would be an average. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss would be an 8 or 9, and the Smetana would drag it down a bit. But it was certainly worth going to!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

The connections between classical music and Shakespeare are many, but the London Symphony Orchestra did really well to present a variety of nineteenth century settings. All fall into the ‘Romantic’ period, where composers were getting to grips with the idea of the orchestra being a storyteller in what was known the ‘symphonic poem’.

Smetana’s Richard III was an ideal curtain opener, though like its subject it had an uneven walk – brilliantly portrayed but still with a sense of a portrait not quite fully fledged.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was different. This was the London Symphony Orchestra on white hot form, Gianandrea Noseda conducting like a man wholly affected by the tragedy. This music surged forward with passion and drama in equal measure, and the hair stood up with the volley of brass and percussion, and the intensity of the love theme on the strings.

Richard Strauss’s Macbeth was equally intense, though even more effective in exploring the minds of the two main protagonists of the story. The lower strings had a steely effectiveness, the double basses brilliantly marshalled, while the drama above unfolded in compelling fashion.

Though Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 had no Shakespearian connection it was a relatively sound choice, for he is a composer unable to resist the temptation of telling a story! This one had its moments of drama, albeit fleeting in comparison to the warhorses of the second half.

A New World in old clothes

A New World in old clothes – The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Adam Fischer, bring new life to Dvořák’s New World symphony, with Brahms’ Violin Concerto from Viktoria Mullova

Viktoria Mullova (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Adam Fischer – The Anvil, Basingstoke, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 28 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link to the same program – with Viktoria Mullova’s recording of the Brahms included.

What’s the music?

Smetana: The Bartered Bride Overture (1865) (7 minutes)

Brahms: Violin Concerto (1878) (39 minutes)

Dvořák: Symphony no.9 (From the New World) (1893) (45 minutes)

What about the music?

dvorakThe composer Antonin Dvořák

This is a ‘period instrument performance’ – that is, played on instruments either from the time the music was written or before – and performed in a style audiences of the day might have witnessed. It is relatively rare for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to venture this far forward in time, for their instruments tend to be more geared towards the performance of music between 1700 and 1850.

They begin with a popular overture, a crowd pleaser – the curtain raiser for Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride. The work is something of a Czech institution, full of Smetana’s interpretations of Czech dances such as the polka and furiant. As BBC Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley says, Smetana became ‘the father of Czech nationalism’ through his patriotic and uplifting set of works for orchestra, Ma vlast (My Country), completed in 1879.

Dvořák was a Czech composer, but the action in the New World symphony takes place far from home. Always one to fill his music with good tunes, the composer turned to American heritage for a lot of his source material, declaring in the New York Herald that “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music“. Dvořák was homesick at the time, and the melancholy tinge to some of his tunes reflects that.

The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and given its first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1893, and has been extremely popular ever since. In recent years themes from it have frequently been heard on TV, most famously when the tune of the second movement Largo was used in a Hovis advert.

In between these Bohemian classics is music by Brahms, his Violin Concerto – which, at the time of composition, was one of the biggest such works around. It was written for the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a composer himself – and he had considerable input into the piece, having also commissioned a concerto from Dvořák. When receiving the parts for the first time Joachim remarked on the symphonic design of the concerto, and on how difficult it was to play – even for him!

The first movement is a big unit in itself, lasting longer than the second and third put together but gripping the listener as a closely fought dialogue between violin and orchestra, both seemingly on equal terms. The third movement finale is based on a gypsy tune, and caught the eye of Paul Thomas Anderson, who chose it for the closing credits of his film There Will Be Blood.

Performance verdict

Having emphatically blown away the cobwebs with a vigorous account of the Smetana overture, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment get their teeth into Brahms.

The Violin Concerto benefits from their slightly smaller numbers, and thanks to Fischer’s conducting we can really hear all the inner workings of the orchestral introduction. The pace is relatively slow at this point, but picks up when the violin enters. Mullova’s tone is lovely, though just occasionally in the first movement she is a little ‘under’ the note of the orchestra – which, given the performance is on period instruments, could even be due to the heat in the venue.

The rustic finale has plenty of swagger, enthusiastically led by Mullova, while the slow movement – which seems to go quickly here – is beautifully rendered.

For the Dvořák the lean textures of the orchestra bring out the beauty of his melodies, and also the strong sense of longing the composer felt from New York for his home. The spiritual melodies help him to express this, but Fischer also keeps the spirit of dance to the fore.

What should I listen out for?


2:24 – a brisk and breezy introduction from the orchestra. Soon the violins take up a rushing theme, as do the violas (3:08) and then the cellos and basses. As with much of Smetana’s fast music he generates terrific energy.

Later there is a gentler passage for the woodwind, with a more ‘reedy’ sound than a modern symphony orchestra would provide. This is rudely interrupted by the drums.

The music dips and then comes back with a terrific crescendo, where it feels like the players are standing on tiptoe.


12:08 – a smooth, ‘legato’ start to the first movement, marked Allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast). This is the beginning of a long orchestral introduction. It is a long time before we hear the violin

14:22 – a sudden injection of power from the strings, a moment of real drama in this music that prepares the way for the entry of the violin 20 seconds later.

20:08 – the violin now takes up the energetic music the strings had earlier, and this is taken up by the full orchestra. There follows a lovely unison melody at 21:27.

24:25 – the culmination of the movement, violin soaring above the orchestra.

27:45 – deep unease in the violin part as Brahms writes some very uncertain double stopping for the instrument, with mysterious lower strings, until the injection of power happens again at 28:02. This leads through to…

29:13 – the start of the cadenza, a showy section for violin alone. This is a pivotal part in any performance of the Brahms, as a large number of cadenzas from different composers are available – or the soloist can perform their own. I suspect this one is by Joseph Joachim. The orchestra return at 32:07 and the mood has changed to one of calm reflection – which builds to an affirmative finish at 33:40 – at over twenty minutes, a first movement of impressive size!

34:50 – the start of the slow second movement, marked Adagio (slow). Soothing horns and woodwind set a scene of calm. If the music ever sounds out of tune, this is because the brass have a ‘temperament’ that can be slightly out of kilter on certain notes. If anything it makes the music more authentic! The violin comes in at 36:49 with a sweetly toned melody.

42:34 – a wonderful gypsy tune to begin the finale, which sounds full of the open air. This performance brings out the dance, and Mullova takes the lead effortlessly. Lovely woodwind trills at 43:11 too. The catchy tune appears on a number of occasions, structured by Brahms as a ‘Rondo’, running through to the end at 50:30.


1:16:19 – a solemn introduction on lower strings, then woodwind, before the full orchestra interrupt suddenly. Gradually the tension builds before a statement of the main theme of this movement from the horn (1:18:08)

1:18:38 – full brass on the theme, then the texture drops to 1:19:09 and a dance-like melody.

1:20:17 – another tune from the flute, slightly mournful this time, but then given more power by the brass (1:20:44), at which point the horn returns to the tune from the opening.

1:25:19 – the recap of the symphony’s themes so far begins with the horn once again, then the introverted flute tune (1:26:01), then moving seamlessly to the slighty mournful flute tune (1:27:01) – again heard with much greater power a few moments later. There is then a tautly argued close.

1:29:26 – the famous second movement Largo begins, with its homesick melody first heard on the cor anglais at 1:30:07. This is wonderfully controlled by the OAE’s Gonzalo X. Ruiz.

1:32:09 – a more involved section starts with the strings gradually moving the music on by way of a variation on the main theme. Beautifully hushed in this performance. Then the cor anglais returns at 1:33:01.

1:34:02 – the music switches key from major to minor and a darker shadow emerges, but at 1:37:10 this is emphatically put to rights by the woodwind – and then we hear a reference to the first movement in the loudest part of the Largo.

1:38:03 – the tune returns, again on the cor anglais – and then we get the solemn music of the brass introduction, now closing a rather special reverie.

1:41:48 – the third movement (a Scherzo) begins, with spiky fragments from flute and clarinet, taken up by the violins at 1:42:17 and debated by the whole orchestra. This section is repeated.

1:43:23 – another winsome melody from Dvorak, begun by the woodwinds, before the music works its way back round to the mood of the opening.

1:44:46 – this symphony has its mysterious moments, and here is another from the cellos and basses – before yet another catchy melody begins in the woodwinds at 1:45:07. This works around to another statement of the main tune (1:47:10). The orchestral sound is still wide open, as though standing on the prairie. We hear all the tunes again, then the horn brings in another reference from the symphony’s first movement at 1:49:08.

1:49:53 – a terrific sense of expectation with the introduction to the final movement here, justified by the theme that appears on the brass at 1:50:10. This is music of great resilience. Then at 1:51:05 an equally thrilling and persuasive dance tune appears. Yet another big and resilient tune appears at 1:52:31.

1:55:31 – at this point Dvorak brings back the main theme from the symphony’s first movement, now in defiant guise, with extra input from the brass. This theme effectively ‘resets’ the symphony, the feeling now of greater resolution – even when Dvorak skilfully combines two themes at 1:58:35 and we hear some pretty discordant music. The music subsides until…

1:59:57 – the coda of the symphony, with a solemn utterance of its first theme, then proclaimed by the orchestra to an ultimately winning finish over rolling timpani, ending at 2:01:10.

Want to hear more?

How about some dances? All three composers wrote dances for orchestra, so here is a playlist combining two other dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, some Hungarian Dances by Brahms and finally some of Dvořák’s winsome Slavonic Dances with Adam Fischer. As another bonus, dropped into the middle is Dvořák’s own Violin Concerto, written for Joachim and played here by Julia Fischer:

For more concerts click here