Relishing Coffins with Sweet Cream

Opus Osm

A simple but charming set supports the comic action in 'The Two Widows.'

Smetana’s Fifth Opera The Two Widows is a Sweet, Comic Treat

“I wrote The Two Widows for our Czech theatre to such a text and in such a music style as to combine the salon elegance with the tenderness and nobleness of the music. It was an attempt to write an opera in the cultured salon spirit.”

Smetana’s words about his fifth opera are often quoted nowadays on the occasion of introduction or broadcasting of this work, maybe because today’s public is open more to the other aspects of the composer’s personality rather than to the exalted national one.

These words, as well as the opera itself, show Smetana not as “our national composer” but just as a good composer, and moreover, a human being with a sense of humour, considering music not as something in service to the nation, but just as – music.

The new staging at the National Theatre respects the intended gentle atmosphere of the opera — no savage experiments, but period costumes and furniture, not garish however; the sight of the almost empty stage is very pleasant. The effects are austere, but all the more impressive. The four main characters sing about their feelings, accompanied by a projection of the keywords of their thoughts; chandeliers lower and rise, lighting up or softening the atmosphere, or focusing on a certain character.

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Aleš Briscein pours his heart out from the theatre's Presidential box

All is concentrated around the brilliant achievements of the four main singers. Sparkling Jana Sibera (May 30 performance) as the “merry” widow Karolina is satisfied with her condition enabling her to decide autonomously about her life and manner (the most famous aria, I Rule Independently, earned well-deserved spontaneous applause). She enjoys life and tries to cheer up her cousin, the “sad” widow Anežka, who thinks she should keep mourning till the end of her life.

Maria Kobielska in this role persuasively plays a sensitive woman, prey of an inner conflict between her assumed duty and her love for the young landowner Ladislav Podhájský (Aleš Briscein). He loves the unapproachable Anežka so much that he masquerades as a poacher in Karolina’s forests in order to be caught and brought to the house (to meet Anežka) by the gamekeeper Mumlal.

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The merry Karolina jokes with Mumlal (J Sibera, L Vele)

Mumlal in Czech is the name for someone who mutters, and Luděk Vele does his comic turn in Mumlal’s aria, I’m a Well-Known Authority on Muttering.

The appearances of the young countryfolk celebrating harvest-home and the philippics of Mumlal, who relishes this role, structure the action which draws to a happy end.

Despite the buffa mood of the opera, the love story is believable in reality as well. Karolina’s preference for emancipation, Mumlal, and other cues set people laughing even today, almost 140 years after their creation. Of course the plot is in no way profound – as with most opera librettos – but it is frolicsome and graceful, in comparison to the bit cumbersome rural farce, The Bartered Bride.

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'Grandmother's coffin'

Two Widows blazes with optimism; it is exhilarating, being a counterpart to Smetana’s endeavors at monumental historical opera dramas. But it loses nothing of Smetana’s mastery of musical characteristics.

Take advantage of the remaining June performances, because it is best served fresh, like the Czech dessert “grandmother’s coffin with whipped cream” – the two sweets on the opera poster. — oo

– Lucie Rohanová

Note: The remaining June performances of The Two Widows are June 3, 10, and 21 at the National Theatre. After that, two performances are scheduled in September (11, 28) and then once a month in Oct, Nov, 2013 and Feb (2014), Mar, Apr and May.

Photo Credits: Lucie Rohanová

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