A good portion of the classical music programming in the Czech Republic this year is related to the 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of Czechoslovakia. For sheer national pride and patriotic fervour it would be hard to surpass Libuše, Smetanaʼs operatic treatment of the legendary princess who founded the original Czech royal dynasty and foresaw “a great city whose glory will touch the stars” – Prague.

Dana Burešová (Libuše)
© Jakub Gulyás

The new production that kicked off this yearʼs opera season in Prague comes with a weighty pedigree. The inaugural performance of Libuše marked the opening of the National Theatre, an unprecedented achievement and enormous source of Czech unity and pride, in June 1881. When the theatre burned down two months later, it was promptly rebuilt and Libuše was again the first piece performed when it reopened in November 1883. Since then the opera has served mainly as a cultural touchstone, resurrected for important anniversaries, celebrations and special events. As the programme book notes, performances of Libuše “constitute a calendar of Czech national history”.

So it would be unfair to judge it by normal operatic standards, which would be harsh. The storyline, a creaky reworking of the Libuše myth with a family squabble added to lend some dramatic tension, wraps up in the second act. The third and final act offers little more than an anticlimactic celebration of Libušeʼs marriage to the ploughman Přemsyl and her glowing prophecy for her nation. The music, though it has moments of Smetanaʼs rich lyricism and melodic invention, is dominated by large choral scenes and high-volume horn fanfares. The Czechs prefer the term “festival opera”, which is more accurate, a joyful but lightweight exercise in pride and pageantry.

František Zahradníček (Chrudoš) and Adam Plachetka ( Přemsyl)
© Jakub Gulyás

And pageantry this production has in spades. Expansive sets, elaborate costuming, many bodies onstage – there are three choruses – and clever visual effects give it an epic look and feel. Movement is generally slow and highly stylised, though itʼs debatable whether that adds gravitas or simply makes for a long evening (three and a half hours). On opening night conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink led a bright, energetic musical performance that swelled with pride and occasionally bordered on bombastic. If you didnʼt look too closely or critically, it was a captivating show. 

Still, the presentation was notably uneven. The first scene is dominated by a rear projection of an undulating liquid surface, as if the action is taking place underwater in a large cavern. It seems an ominous, even suffocating portent. But then the stage is taken over by a floor-to-ceiling picture frame, and for the rest of the opera, many of the characters move in and out of the frame, and the action, on a conveyor belt, occasionally freezing in place. The intent seemed historic or at least nostalgic, but by the end the effect was mostly cartoonish, totally at odds with the solemnities unfolding onstage. Former National Theatre Ballet Director Petr Zuska was enlisted to add dance sequences, which range from classical to modern – again, entertaining to watch, but without much apparent relation to whatʼs happening onstage.

Adam Plachetka (Přemsyl)
© Jakub Gulyás

A cast largely of National Theatre house singers turned in durable performances, with typical standout work from Roman Janál (Radovan) and Jiří Sulženko (Lutobor). Dana Burešová got off to a shaky start in the title role, but by the final act was in full voice and beaming with beatific glory. The vocal star of the evening was Adam Plachetka, a National Theatre alum who is now a member of the Wiener Staatsoper company and a semi-regular at The Met in New York. As Přemsyl, he joins the story late, but from the minute he started singing he was the dominant voice, clear, commanding and warm.

Does one need to be Czech to fully appreciate Libuše? The answer is a qualified yes, at least for this production, which has no aspirations for depth, subtlety or a larger audience. Itʼs an unabashed celebration of Czech mythology and national identity, and thereʼs nothing wrong with that. From its inception Libuše represented an emergence and affirmation of people who had long suffered under the yoke of foreign powers. Considering everything the country has been through in the past 100 years, thatʼs a triumph still worth celebrating.