Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Two Widows
Jaroslav Krombholc, cond; Maria Tauberová (
); Drahomira Tikalová (
); Ivo Židek (
); Eduard Haken (
); Antonin Zlesák (
); Miloslava Fidlerová (
Natl Theatre O & Ch
SUPRAPHON 3926 (2 CDs: 124:45
Text and Translation)
Of the eight completed operas of Smetana,
The Two Widows
(or, in the original Czech,
) was finished fifth. It was the fourth to be performed, however, ahead of the historical pageant
, in its original and revised versions. Both versions, too, were considerable successes at their respective debuts, and especially valuable to a composer whose work was almost always under attack for political and musical reasons by powerful interests preferring a more Germanic style.
The original version of
The Two Widows
debuted within less than three months of its completion, in 1874. The story, drawn from a comedy by Pierre-Félicien Mallefille, concerned a pair of sisters who treat their mutual widowhood very differently. One, Karolina, relishes ruling her broad estates benignly, and contemplates entering politics. The other, Anežka, dresses in black and keeps the memory of her husband sacrosanct, avoiding a young man of leisure whom she once cared for while still married. When that young man turns up on Karolina’s lands while Anežka is visiting—pretending to poach the wildlife, and missing constantly—it’s time for a little scheming intervention. Low comedy was provided by the buffoonish bass role of Mumlal, Karolina’s gamekeeper.
Like the original
, this first version of
The Two Widows
was a comedy with dialogue. Smetana himself conducted that premiere, and wrote in his diary, “I received numerous wreaths and flowers, also a beautiful ornamented silver baton and silver wreath. . . . I was called out repeatedly after each act. Perfect success of the opera.” But the composer ultimately judged otherwise, for the second version made a few important changes clearly designed to give
The Two Widows
, well, legs. Smetana and his well-wishers wanted to see his operatic works performed abroad. As in the case of
, which saw its debut a year later, the best way they saw to boost the international chances of an opera-with-spoken-word was to make it all music, all the time.
The recitative Smetana created in place of spoken text for his revision was fluent and varied in character, freely phrased and capable of moving between different levels of speech-song and concerted pieces. An example occurs in act II, scene 4, from recitative to parlando, and smoothly into an excellent trio (“Tob?, vdovo truchlivá”). Richard Strauss is said to have admired the way Smetana used recitative informally in
The Two Widows
, and saw it repeatedly while writing
. Perhaps he was doing more than just thinking of this very scene, with its simple but beguiling waltz tune that starts midway through, with its sideslips into the relative minor.
The revision also involved the creation of what some might charitably call a secondary plot: a tiresome bit of wheezy humor, with interfering Mumlal sticking his head between two otherwise anonymous lovers, getting kissed, doing it again, and getting his nose boxed in stereo. It has the same rustic quality as Va?ek’s circus misadventures in
The Bartered Bride
, save that there, the incidents were truly woven into the story. Here, they simply pad the second act. Musically, it is another matter. Mumlal’s act II aria isn’t very interesting, but I find the trio scene for Mumlal, Toník, and Lidunka a delight.
Indeed, the opera displays a relatively high level of lyrical inspiration and craftsmanship throughout. While act I is slow—in part because it bore the larger amount of converted dialogue, in part because Mallefille’s original one-acter wasn’t really ideal for conversion into two acts—it has some choice content, including a short but delightful overture, a proud aria by Karolina (“Tot je jiná”), a hauntingly beautiful song for Ladislav (“Aj, vizte lovce tam”), and a wonderful
for all four main characters. Act II is almost pure gold: an attractive prelude, a heartwarming aria for Ladislav (“Když zavitá máj”), and a sparkling duet for Karolina and Anežka in which the latter quotes her sister’s earlier musical paean to non-marital freedom and tosses it astutely back. There’s a wonderful and lengthy scene for Ladislav and Anežka, where he reads a letter he’s written her, over music. (The liner notes claim this melodrama as unique, but as anybody familiar with opera should know, the ploy of reading a letter over powerful music was made very popular years earlier, with its best known example being a similar letter-reading scene in Verdi’s
.) There is also a magnificent scene for Anežka, who finally regrets her behavior to Ladislav, addresses her husband beyond the grave, and lets go of what she has perceived as faithfulness, seeking the joys of living, instead. Not to be missed either are a series of concerted numbers for several voices, and, of course, one excellent polka.
There isn’t any available competition for this album. The 1970s recording for Supraphon is currently out of print and unattainable on most Web sites. (I just found a used version selling for over $360, but that’s ridiculous.) František Jilek led a spirited reading with a well-rounded but never outstanding cast. Its best feature is, frankly, the sound. It is far better than what Supraphon could accomplish in 1956, and that’s the date of this boxy reissue under Krombholc. Digital re-mastering hasn’t done a thing to rebalance the neglected midrange frequencies, or to deal with the constriction of the original tapes. But Krombholc, a fine conductor in his own right, has the advantage of a superior Karolina—almost Marschallin-like in her brightness, ease of phrasing, and coloratura—and a richer, slightly darker, more lyrical Anežka, who does full justice to her act II scene. Ivo Židek is slightly off his best, bright but occasionally pinched at the top, sometimes sliding in an unconvincing fashion. But he has a good, lyric voice, fine enunciation, and an ardent approach to this music that requires more than heft and vocal perfection. My only real disappointment in the cast was Eduard Haken, whose dark bass occasionally wobbles, and who goes disastrously askew when asked to do any figurations. Otherwise, he’s more than satisfactory, as are Zlesák and Fidlerová in their minor parts. All the performers sound thoroughly at home in their parts, and have that sense of rightness in scenes together that only comes from working in close proximity for a length of time.
A less appealing reading would still get a recommendation on the strength of the score, though the deficiencies would be noted. Here, the reservations are few. Definitely recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
The two widows, T 109 by Bedrich Smetana
Drahomira Tikalova (Soprano),
Eduard Haken (Bass),
Maria Tauberova (Soprano),
Antonín Zlesák (Tenor),
Miloslava Fidlerová (Soprano),
Ivo Zidek (Tenor)
Prague National Theatre Orchestra,
Prague National Theatre Chorus
Written: 1873-1874; Czech Republic
Venue: Rudolfinum, Prague, Czechoslovakia
Length: 134 Minutes 45 Secs.
Notes: Rudolfinum, Prague, Czechoslovakia (11/1956 - 12/1956)
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