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:

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

Pickard
The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here