“What Czech does not like music?” declares Beneš, the jailor in Smetana’s opera Dalibor. Certainly not Jiří Bělohlávek, who is as superb an advocate for Czech music as any conductor in the world right now. As principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he recently brought his orchestra on a UK tour, but this evening he returned to his old stamping ground, the Barbican, for an operatic rarity. That he can make the BBC Symphony Orchestra sound so idiomatic in this repertoire is the mark of a fine musician.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Masayuki Nakajima
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Masayuki Nakajima

Smetana’s opera Dalibor is akin to being a Czech Fidelio. We are in 15th century Prague, where the knight Dalibor is imprisoned for avenging the death of his friend by murdering the Burgrave of Ploškovice. Milada, the burgrave's sister, is moved by his plight and, disguised as a boy, enters the jail to secure his release and promptly falls in love with him. Unlike Fidelio, there is no happy ending: Dalibor’s attempt to escape is discovered and he is sentenced to death; Milada and her followers storm the castle, but she is mortally wounded, at which point Dalibor stabs himself to join her in death. Smetana regarded it as his greatest opera, smarting at the critics, who denounced it as too Wagnerian, and the public, which he felt was musically unsophisticated in its taste for froth and divertissements.

Despite the occasional longeur in the score, Bělohlávek led a glowing account, rarely hurried, his technique full of easy, fluid gestures. The warm BBCSO strings revelled in the noble leitmotif accompanying the knight Dalibor, similar to the Vodník’s theme that Dvořák would later use in Rusalka. Smetana adds pomp to scenes involving King Vladislav, with liberal use of brass and cymbals, while the jolly scene with the carousing mercenary soldiers contains more triangle and piccolo than is strictly necessary. Highlights included the lovely interlude for harp, often associated in Czech music with bardic tales, and clarinets as Milada made her entrance.

Kenneth Richardson was credited as stage director, but this was a pretty straightforward concert performance, singers scorebound. Lighting was theatrical, often very low, with soloists spotlit. There was a nod towards costuming. When Milada appeared as the jailer’s assistant, Dana Burešová had changed from her evening gown into trousers, donning a flat cap but opting to keep her high heels… Beneš should have had his suspicions!

Dana Burešová (Milada) and Alžběta Poláčková (Jitka) © Mark Allan | BBC
Dana Burešová (Milada) and Alžběta Poláčková (Jitka)
© Mark Allan | BBC

As with his previous concert performances of Czech operas, Bělohlávek gathered some of the finest singers usually found at Prague’s National State Opera. Burešová led the way with an impassioned Milada, imperious top notes of serious power, although in her lower register she occasionally swallowed consonants. Alžběta Poláčková made a delightful impression as Jitka, a country girl who rouses support for Dalibor. Sweet-toned, Poláčková provided a fine counter-balance to Burešova’s striking tone in their duet to close Act I.

Richard Samek cut a dash as the knight Dalibor. His eloquent narration in Act I, where he justifies his actions in killing the burgrave, demonstrated a sweet top to his tenor and his sensitive phrasing. Greater dynamic variation was sometimes needed – he did not quite possess the heroic tone the role requires and he noticeably tired towards the end of the long evening.

Jan Stava, handcuffs dangling from his belt, made for an effective Beneš, his lugubrious bass giving his jailer a world-weary air. Experienced baritone Ivan Kusnjer provided gravitas as Vladislav, making his entrance through the Stalls, while Svatopluk Sem sang in ringing tone as Budivoj, commander of the king’s castle guard. Aleš Voráček was an amiable Vítek, Dalibor’s messenger. The BBC Singers gave a splendid, polished performance, providing more power than their number might suggest.

The Bartered Bride, probably Smetana’s most familiar opera, was performed (and recorded) here a few years back. With Dalibor, it was excellent to introduce Smetana’s more serious operatic fare to a wider public, especially when so well performed as here. A staged production would be most welcome.