Zdeněk Fibich's “Nevěsta messinská” (The Bride of Messina) in Magdeburg
Theater Magdeburg is exploring new territory with the first German performance of an opera by the Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich (1850–1900). Nevěsta messinská (The Bride of Messina) receives its first performance on 14 March 2015 in the opera house in Magdeburg. Alongside Smetana and Dvořak, Fibich is regarded as one of the three most important Czech opera composers of the Romantic period. In his opera, based on Schiller’s tragedy, he follows the intentions of the classical theatre reformer, and combines dramatic choral scenes with convincing role portrayals and the leitmotivic-psychological interpretation of characters and situations.
The conductor is Music Director Kimbo Ishii, and the director is Cornelia Crombholz. Further performances are planned for 22.3., 28.3., 3.4. and 10.4.2015
“An interesting, idiosyncratic talent” was how the leading Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick judged the Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich (1850–1900) in the Neue Freie Presse on 13 February 1883. By this point Fibich was already a thoroughly experienced composer, with several operas and symphonic poems, a symphony and numerous chamber music works which had been premiered. However, he had barely received any exposure beyond the narrow confines of his native Bohemia, a fate which he shared with many of his colleagues, including Bedřich Smetana, who were interested in the development of a national musical style. This was only to change in 1892 when Smetana’s Bartered Bride made its triumphal progress from Vienna into the world.
For Fibich, however, this international success story for Czech music was a Pyrrhic victory. As a composer who had studied in Vienna, Leipzig, Paris and Mannheim, keenly interested in literature, he could not and did not want to jump on the bandwaggon of Bohemian village comedies. His seven operas are all based on serious subjects from Czech history or mythology, or literary subjects from Shakespeare (The Tempest 1894), Lord Byron (Hedy 1895 after Don Juan) and Schiller.
With his Bride of Messina composed in 1882, Fibich and his librettist, the aesthete and musicologist Otakar Hostinský, drew on a work whose classical emphasis and dark, dramatic atmosphere appealed to them, but which was regarded by Schiller’s contemporaries as a failed experiment. Fibich und Hostinský made the weaknesses of the piece, with which Schiller wanted to revive the classical ideal, into the strengths of their opera: the tightening up of the text compared with the play benefitted the persuasive power of the plot very well. Hostinský retained Schiller’s “noble tone”, including the metre, in his Czech transcription, and Fibich did justice to this, taking great care with the declamation. Here we can already recognize the master of theatrical melodrama, who was to help bring this unusual genre of spoken text with orchestral accompaniment to a brief, late blossoming in the following years.
The opera is through-composed in the style of Richard Wagner’s music dramas, which greatly influenced Fibich in the 1880s. Monologues and a few dialogues predominate, and there is just one short ensemble formed from the free declamation. A subtly differentiated web of musical leitmotifs reflects the network of connections between the past and the present, which determines the tragic action of the Princess Isabella, who wants to reconcile her two sons and also to bring her long-disappeared daughter back to the family.
Fibich achieves a particular coup in the treatment of the choruses, to which Schiller gives special emphasis as a classical element in the plot. Whilst these have a more commenting role with Schiller, in the opera they become actors who truly drive the action forwards. The competing sons Manuel and César are sidelined, but continually intervene in the action and make the potential for violence in the pent-up conflict very real. This is set musically by Fibich with tremendous power, but also in a subtly differentiated way.
Following Bouře (The Tempest) (Bielefeld 2007) and Šarka (Braunschweig 2012), The Bride of Messina is the last of Fibich’s major operas to receive its German premiere, on 14 March 2015 at the Theater Magdeburg – more than 130 years after its premiere at the National Theatre in Prague. In collaboration with DeutschlandRadio, which is recording the first performance, this production will be issued by cpo on CD.
Ulrike Schröder(from [t]akte 1/2015 – translation: Elizabeth Robinson)