Libuše, UCOpera, University College, UCL, Bloomsbury Theatre, March 2019

The wise Libuše, mythical founder of the Czech people, is the subject of this ‘festival’ opera that Smetana originally composed for the planned coronation of Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph as King of Bohemia in the early 1870s. That never happened, so he saved it for the opening of the National Theatre in Prague in 1881. Apart from his second opera, the perennially popular Bartered Bride, it is now his most performed in Prague, starting each season of the Czech National Opera. Its opening fanfare accompanies the president at important events, and the Czech ambassador attended this first staging of Libuše in Britain.

Libuše and her people, all images UCOpera/ Dione Sarantinou

In this take on the story, Libuše settles an inheritance dispute between two brothers, marries the farmer Přemysl, and the opera concludes with a series of visions about the future Czech nation. For this staging, director Cecilia Stinton and her designer Holly Muir have created a cityscape coldly highlighted in blue, but in Act II scene 2, which starts the second half, we see a warm sun-filled bucolic scene where Přemysl first appears.

Argument between brothers

UCOpera under their excellent music director Charles Peebles do a terrific job of producing rarely seen operas, one every year, and as usual the students formed a wonderful chorus and orchestra. Young professional singers take the principal roles, though UCL final year student Ananya Samuel sang sweetly as the sister of the two brothers. Among the young professionals, Kirstin Sharpin created a beautiful stage presence and strong vocal line as Libuše herself, with Eve Daniell as a strong Krasava, the woman who loves the older brother Chudroš but makes a play for his younger sibling St’áhlav to incite his jealousy and stir his inhibited emotions. These two ladies were excellent, showing great forbearance in dealing with the emotional fury exhibited by the incisively sung Chudroš of James Quilligan, an imposing presence a head taller than everyone else. As his brother St’áhlav, Ben Harding in his first opera performance exhibited a really beautiful tenor, John Mackenzie made a suitably stern father of Krasava, William Bennett an authoritative envoy of Libuše, and baritone Robert Davies was an engaging presence as a warmly voiced Přemysl.

Bucolic summer scene with Libuše’s future husband

As a Czech festival opera this does not tend to travel well to other countries, and although Smetana was a keen Czech nationalist the music of Libuše  exhibits interesting Wagnerian qualities. I’m not sure the coldness of the staging in the first half suited the usual medieval setting of the story, but it warms up in the second half, and I am already fascinated to know what UCOpera plans for next year.

Performances continue on March 20, 22 and 23.

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