'The Secret,' by Bedrich Smetana

From the Prague National Theatre

WHO'S WHO?

  • Miloslav Podskalsky ........ Malina
  • Roman Janal ................... Kalina
  • Katerina Jalovcova ......... Roza
  • Maria Haan ................ Blazenka
  • Tomas Cerny .................. Vit
  • Jiri Sulzenko ................. Bonifac
  • Vaclav Lemberk .............. Jirka
  • Prague National Theatre Orchestra and Chorus
  • Zbynek Mueller, conductor

MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS

In Act Three of The Secret, Blazenka knows that Vit is leaving and sings a song called "The Water from the High Hills," about staying faithful to a lost love.

The second act features a key, solo scene for Kalina. He admits that he's flat broke, but he's still determined to strike it rich, and prove himself to Roza once and for all.

Smetana's 'The Secret' in Prague

hide captionThe village bell-ringer Jirka (Jiri Sulzenko) fans old rumors in the lively town of Bezdez, in Smetana's The Secret at the Prague National Theatre.

Hana Smejkalova

The power of nationalism has been a driving force in music for centuries, and the national sentiments of a broad spectrum of countries have inspired a world of great music.

One example is Finland, which has a home-bred, musical tradition embodied by one of the most famous works ever composed — "Finlandia" by Sibelius.

There was also a striking nationalist trend in the music of 19th-century Russia. We can still hear it in the world's opera houses — in the works of Glinka, who wrote a drama called A Life for the Tsar, and in the historical epics of Borodin and Mussorgsky.

And while the word "Bohemian" has come to have a number of meanings, it certainly describes one of music's strongest nationalistic currents — one that was especially evident in the works of Czech composers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dvorak, Martinu and Janacek all wrote music steeped in the culture and traditions of their homeland, creating instrumental works brimming with the spirit and color of folk tunes, and songs and operas with a rhythmic energy springing directly from the unique cadences of the Czech language.

Still, when it comes to Czech musical nationalism, there's one composer in particular who played a vital role in getting the trend started, in the mid 1800's — Bedrich Smetana. His most famous composition is almost surely the orchestral masterpiece, "The Moldau." It's part of a set of 7 tone poems called "Ma Vlast" — or "My Country" — and magically evokes the convergence of many small streams, joining to form the powerful river that flows through Prague.

But Smetana displayed his love for Czech traditions even more vividly in the opera house. The most familiar of his 8 operas is the comedy The Bartered Bride, set in a small Czech village. Smetana used similar settings for a number of other operas, including a charmer called The Secret. Its story revolves around a hidden treasure — and the score is heard so rarely that the opera has become a sort of hidden treasure, as well.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Smetana's The Secret in a production that comes to us straight from the source, the Prague National Theatre, built in 1883 in a place that has come to symbolize the composer's national pride, on the banks of the Moldau River itself.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of Smetana's 'The Secret'

'The Secret' at the Prague National Theatre

hide captionThe ballad singer Skrivanek (Jaroslav Brezina) tries to calm the feud between Malina (Miloslav Podskalsky, left) and Kalina (Roman Janal, seated right), while Bonifac (Jiri Sulzenko) looks on.

Hana Smejkalova
Tomas Cerny and Maria Haan as Vit and Blazenka

hide captionAlone on the mountanside, Vit and Blazenka (Tomas Cerny and Maria Haan) decide to defy their fathers, and announce their secret love to everyone.

Hana Smejkalova

ACT ONE: The opera takes place in and around the Czech village of Bezdez, which is home to two men who have been at odds for many years — Malina and Kalina. Both are town councilors, and there has been bad blood between them ever since Kalina asked for permission to marry Malina's sister, Roza. Malina refused him, on the grounds that Kalina wasn't wealthy enough. Years passed, Kalina married another woman, and is now a widower.

Roza has been bitter and resentful ever since. She was truly in love with Kalina, and felt that he could have fought more strongly to win her hand. And now, she has a suitor of her own, a retired soldier named Bonifac.

As the action begins, people have gathered to celebrate the completion of Kalina's new house, which stands across the square from Malina's home. His old house has been torn down, and its rubble is nearby. Skrivanek, a ballad singer, is urged to sing a song that praises both sides of the conflict — but his best efforts only prompt another shouting match.

We then find out exactly why Roza is still bitter after so many years. She reminds Kalina that Barnabas, a long-dead friar, once gave him a mysterious document, containing a secret that might have brought them together. Kalina says he remembers none of this.

When a further argument breaks out between Malina and Kalina, and threatens to turn violent, their children try to stop it. Blazenka is Malina's daughter, and Vit is Kalina's son. The two young people are in love, but have kept their affair to themselves. They have no luck in blunting their fathers' animosity.

Meanwhile, Bonifac is poking around the rubble of Kalina's old house. He finds a yellowing document, written by Friar Barnabas. He glimpses its contents — something about a hidden treasure — then shows it to Kalina and Vit. Kalina quickly takes the paper and makes Bonifac and Vit promise they won't tell anyone about it. But rumors soon spread all over town, fanned by Skrivanek, the village bell ringer.

ACT TWO: Kalina is resting near a mountainside chapel outside town, not far from the old monastery. Alone, he reveals that he built his new house so he could appear wealthy — but that he's actually deep in debt. We also learn that he still has feelings for Roza.

Kalina falls asleep, and dreams that he hears the friar Barnabas, summoning the spirits that guard the hidden treasure. A ghostly chorus seems to call to Kalina, emerging from underground and urging him to find the treasure, and claim it. The ballad singer Skrivanek appears with a procession of girls, all singing a hymn. The ghosts recoil at the hymn's holy words, and disappear. As the girls enter the chapel, Kalina wakes up and leaves the scene.

The lovers Blazenka and Vít appear. Blazenka assures Vít that her feelings for him will never change, and Vít declares that they should defy their fathers, and announce their love to the world.

He gets his wish when their conversation is overheard by the entire group of townspeople, including Malina, Kalina and Roza, who are on their way to the chapel. The lovers appeal to their fathers to allow them to marry. The feuding men reject this out of hand, and Roza scolds Blazenka. She insults Kalina in the process, and earns an angry rebuke from Vít.

Alone, Roza muses that things might have been different, years ago, if Kalina had been as defiant as his son is now. Bonifac, who still has a romantic eye on Roza, decides to make a play for her, but she turns him down. Then they see Kalina coming up the mountain, carrying a lantern and a shovel. The old instructions from Barnabas have led him to the dark caverns deep under the monastery. He has finally decided to explore them, determined to find the treasure at last — even if it means braving the lords of hell. Roza and Bonifac watch Kalina as he goes, and pray for him.

ACT THREE: The townspeople have gathered in Malina's parlor to prepare for the harvest. Blazenka is upset because Vit has decided to leave the village — to go off into the world to get rich, so he can claim Blazenka as his bride. Roza finally persuades Malina to let Blazenka marry Vit. But he agrees only on one condition: Kalina must come to him in person, and plead his son's case. And obviously, that can never happen. Kalina has disappeared, and the villagers assume he is dead — lost in the hellish caverns.

Suddenly, there's a loud banging noise from behind the wall, near an old door by the stove. Roza says the door is abandoned — it leads to an old, mountainside cellar that long ago collapsed. Everyone but Roza is frightened, and runs out of the house. As Roza watches, amazed, the old door slowly opens — and Kalina appears. He followed the instructions from Friar Barnabas, looking for the hidden treasure, and discovered a secret passage leading to Malina's house. The treasure Barnabas had meant him to find was Roza herself, and her steadfast love.

When the others return, they find the couple embracing. Kalina asks Malina for permission to marry Roza, and for Vit to marry Blazenka — and the villagers rejoice when Malina, at last, says yes.

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